He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. — Genesis 28:12
The Torah portion for this week, Vayeitzei, which means “and he left,” is from Genesis 28:10–32:3, and the Haftorah is from Hosea 11:7–12:14.
Alexander the Great asked once asked Jewish sages, “What should a person do to live?” They answered, “Let him kill himself.” That’s a strange answer! But here is what the sages meant: A person should humble himself, slaughter his ego, die to his flesh. In that way, he will live in this world and gain immortality in the next.
In Ecclesiastes 1:4 we read, “the earth remains forever.” The sages explain that this verse refers to the humble who lower themselves to the ground. Like the earth, they exist forever. On the other hand, an arrogant person will not rise in the resurrection of the dead for he is not connected to God, the source of life. Only “the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity” (Psalm 37:11).
All these verses teach us the same lesson that Jacob experienced in this week’s reading when he stopped for the night on his way to Haran and had his famous dream. In the dream, Jacob sees “a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven.” There are many different interpretations of Jacob’s vision. One of them is that Jacob learned that the way to reach heaven is to be rooted in the earth. In other words, humility is the gateway to eternity.
This message is repeated in many different forms throughout the Bible. And it’s a good thing, too, since society has been functioning according to an opposite creed since the dawning of time. “Might makes right” and “he who has the most toys wins” are ideas that have been governing our lives. We buy into the idea that the more we build ourselves up, especially in the eyes of others, the greater our lives will be and the more we will be remembered when we are gone. But God is telling us, and Jacob learned, that the real secret to greatness and immortality is humility. It’s not how we look in the eyes of others, but how we appear in the eyes of God.
Jewish mystics put it this way: “He who is small is actually great.” Take a look at Abraham, one of God’s greatest. He said to God “I am nothing but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). King David, another spiritual giant, remarked, “I am a worm and not a man” (Psalm 22:6). Humility leads to majesty.
This week, let’s ask ourselves how we might walk more humbly with God. Can we put others first? Can we overlook insults? Can we slaughter our egos so that we might transcend them? When we root ourselves firmly on earth, we will eventually ascend Jacob’s ladder and reach the kingdom of heaven.