Hashem Wants Us to Follow Our Dreams. Just Not All of Them.
A few weeks ago, when the lottery was tipping over a billion dollars, my students were discussing what they would do if they won such an absurd sum of money. One of them remarked that “if any of our teachers won the lottery we're never gonna see them again.”
They proceeded to dream a little more, of yachts and beaches, holiday homes and supercars. It all sounded fun, but I felt the need to correct my talmidim. I told them that if I won the lottery, they could expect to see me back in shiur the next day. And the day after that. Because teaching Torah is not something that we do until we have enough money to run away from it.
A student then challenged me: “Hold on Rebbe! If someone offered you a billion dollars to take another job, wouldn't you do it!?” I explained: “Another job leaning and teaching Torah? Sure. (A ten-figure job in Chinuch and Rabbanus? I'm happy to consider all such offers 😊.) But if someone offered me a billion dollars to never teach Torah again? I would have to decline.”
I looked around the room at their shocked faces. For some of my students, this was the very first time that they had heard someone articulating a goal that was not the cookie-cutter American Dream of “get rich and do whatever you want.”
To be sure, these are good kids from good homes. They aren't a group of rebels trying to abandon Jewish values. But the idea that one might choose to spend one's life teaching Torah rather than getting rich, is strange to them.
Of course, for most of us, we don't think about this dichotomy in such absolute terms. Our philosophy tries hard to walk the tightrope of “having it all.” But these choices, and their effects, exist for each of us, every day in micro-doses.
Who hasn't been faced with some decision choice of “a little more Torah” or “a little more money”? Meet an extra client or attend a shiur? See another patient or a make it minyan? Do I leave work a little earlier on Friday to prepare for Shabbos? Should we book a more expensive flight or risk erev Shabbos traffic? We all know that we have to make countless of these either/or decisions.
Despite the pervasive contemporary voices to the contrary, it isn't actually possible to have it all. We can certainly try to live in both worlds, but the freedom of the Western world is fundamentally at odds with the concept of Avodas Hashem. By definition, an Eved Hashem is someone who puts the desires of the Ribono Shel Olam above their own.
Even in the realm of clearly important activities, it isn't possible to be a full time parent, build a career and dedicate our life to learning Torah and doing mitzvos, and still take time off to care for our physical and mental health. All of this means that we need to say “yes” to some things, and “no” to others.
Likewise, while I have only love and respect for the young guys trying to remain Shomer Shabbos and play sports professionally, it's not actually possible to do both fully. (For a host of reasons, both halachic and hashkafic.)
But how do we decide? How do we evaluate between priorities when everything is important?
Not to sound too clichéd, I think the answer is to follow our dreams. But definitely not all of them. The question then becomes: Which dreams to follow? As it happens, Yaakov Avinu has a similar question.
Yaakov's Final Dream
The Parsha opens with Yaakov’s dramatic dream at Beis El. There, he envisions a grand ladder that stretches from heaven to earth with Angels of Hashem ascending and descending. Throughout the ages, countless sages and commentators have uncovered and discussed the magnificent ideas gleaned from these pesukim. It would not be an understatement to say that all of the hopes and dreams of our people, past, present and future can be found in this singular dream of Yaakov Avinu. It's a spectacular display of destiny, and our yearning to manifest and achieve it.
But Yaakov has a second dream; in some ways, more perplexing than the first. It's recorded strangely at the end our parsha.
Unlike the first majestic dream, this second one is not told as it occurs. We learn about it second-hand, when, at the conclusion of twenty years in the house of Lavan, Yaakov tells Rachel and Leah that the time has come to return to the Land of Canaan. In the course of their discussion he tells them that whilst tending his flock he had a vision:
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי מַלְאַךְ הָאֱלֹקים בַּחֲלוֹם ...וַיֹּאמֶר שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה כׇּל הָעַתֻּדִים הָעֹלִים עַל הַצֹּאן... כִּי רָאִיתִי אֵת כׇּל אֲשֶׁר לָבָן עֹשֶׂה לָּךְ. אָנֹכִי הָקל בֵּית אֵל... עַתָּה קוּם צֵא מִן הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וְשׁוּב אֶל אֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתֶּךָ.
And an Angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘…Lift up your eyes and see that all the goats ... ringed, speckled and checkered. I have seen all that Lavan is doing to you. I am the God of Beis El where you anointed an stone and where you made me a vow; now arise, leave this land and return to the land of your birth.’
The meforshim grapple with this vision. It begins with the mating season of the sheep and ends with an instruction to Yaakov to return to Eretz Yisrael.
This dream, by all measures, is the opposite of Yaakov's great dream of the ladder. It's mundane and anticlimactic and at its core, this dream is a rude awakening.
At the beginning of this saga, when Yaakov leaves the home of his parents and embarks on the path to Charan, he dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder. But after twenty years in Lavan's home, all he dreams of is sheep.
The message of this second dream is simple: “Yaakov, when you stop dreaming of angels and start dreaming of sheep, it’s time to go reconsider your life. It's time pack up and go home.”
The Malach calls to Yaakov and challenges him: I have seen what Lavan is doing to you. Can you see it? Living here with your father-in-law has changed you. Did you notice? When was the last time you looked up at the heavens? When was the last time you dreamed of angels, or thought about the connection between heaven and earth? I know that you're still committed to Torah and Mitzvos. It's beautiful to see how you've flourished in exile. I know that you still care, but it isn't quite the same as it once was. Can you feel the subtle change?
Do you remember that feeling when you left home desperate and penniless? Do you remember the dreams you had back then of returning to build a world of Kedusha and Tahara? You wanted children. Hashem gave you children. You wanted wealth. He gave you that as well. You asked Hashem to ensure that Lavan never got the better of you. Can't you see Hashem orchestrated every moment for your success? But Yaakov, what's all of this for?
Do you remember that night when you slept on a rock, where you vowed to return and fix the world? What happened to your visions of greatness? Perhaps it's time to come home and live your dreams before you lose them.
Old Dreams for a New Generation
Chazal (תנחומא לך לך ס׳ ט׳) tell us that מעשה אבות סימן לבנים – the lives of our Avos sets the stage for our trajectory and destiny. Much like the life of Yaakov Avinu, throughout our own history in exile, we have rarely been able to dream of more than angels and ladders. There was little point in hoping or working for health, wealth and prosperity. Such things were unattainable, and working towards those dreams was impractical, if not impossible.
For centuries, we dreamed and worked only for Yerushalayim Shel Maalah, for Talmud Torah, Mitzvos and Chessed. But something has changed. In the past few decades we can now dream of raising ourselves out of physical weakness and despair. We are finally on the way upwards to material and national redemption. We can dream of financial independence, of success and perhaps even luxury.
Which means that we're now at a cross-roads in our history. For the first time in generations, on a national, communal and personal level we have multiple dreams to navigate. We need to decide which dream to follow.
In the deepest way, the Malach's question is ours to answer: Are we still dreaming of climbing the ladder to Shamayim or are have we traded that great vision for one of producing yet another herd of spotted sheep?
In a world where comfort is now attainable, achievable and even, potentially affordable, we're now faced with the question of what our aspirations should be. With a sense of history and destiny, it's a little easier to reconsider which goals we might work towards fulfilling.
On our way to reprioritizing our dreams, we might take another look at Yaakov's ladder. The Medrash (בראשית רבה סח יב) quotes an empowering approach that the ladder connecting Heaven and Earth was none other than Yaakov himself – ״עולים ויורדים בו – ביעקב״ – the angels were ascending and descending through Yaakov Avinu. This is to say, Yaakov is the connection between Shamayim and Aretz. We as his children are charged with the same mission to draw together the mundane and the meaningful, to fill the world with light.
Hashem should help us to dream of ladders and angels again. To yearn for a day when our feet are planted firmly on the ground, and our heads and hearts reach into the heavens. We don't have too long to wait. After all, the last angel is finally, on its way down. The time is coming for us to ascend.