Some mornings I wake up confused as to whether the dream I just had was actually a dream or part of real life. There’s nothing more terrifying than waking up thinking you’ve flunked your high school final or you’ve missed a big deadline at work. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes I wake up and wish that my dreams were true, that my father really did come back to see me or that magically my student loan debt was paid off. Our dreams let us peer into our deepest desires and fears.
In the Torah too we learn there are dreamers who walk the tightrope between fantasy and reality. Jacob, Joseph, and Pharaoh all have vivid dreams that ultimately change the course of their lives. With each of these men, their dreams have an additional God-related element that moves them to make a change in their world.
This week we read from parshat Vayeitzei, one of the turning points and most famous parts of our text. The text picks up with Jacob on his journey away from his parents’ house to meet his cousin, Lavan, and the strange dreams and encounters he has with godly creatures along the way. He ends up falling in love with Rachel, works for her hand in marriage, but is tricked into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah. Fast forward after a few more years of work, and the prize of having Rachel as his wife is realized. The text continues with the expansion of Jacob’s large family and his journey away from his father-in-law Lavan to a new home.
In this week’s parshah, Jacob is the dreamer. His dream brings God down to him on earth, and in his dream angels dance around him, surrounding him with warmth and love. Alone in the wilderness because he’s had to run away from his family after deceiving his father and brother, Jacob is in an unfamiliar and probably terrifying place. God comes to him in a dream and promises to always be there with him, that he is not alone. What a relief it must have been for Jacob to feel that divine presence, and at the same time, surely he must have questioned whether or not it was real.
Jacob wakes up makes a deal with God to confirm that his dream was more than just a dream. In chapter 28, verses 20-21 he says: “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God.” Jacob isn’t sure whether to trust his dreams or not, and his prayer is essentially “I’ll believe it when I see it.” He makes a promise to God, trying to will God’s guidance and presence to be true.
This reassuring episode undoubtedly helps Jacob feel more closely connected to God, but did it change the course of his life? Ultimately, as his dream and bargaining tell us, the course of Jacob’s life is determined by his actions. Turning dreams into reality isn’t merely an act of God; it’s the combination of faith in God, faith in ourselves, and the active pursuit of the goals we wish to achieve.