Exploring Babylon Chapter 7.1
Jacob heads back “there,” home of his mother’s and his grandparents’ people, in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze (Gen 28:10-32:3; for more on “there“). But a great deal happens in the few verses between his leaving Beer Sheva and his arrival in Haran, and some of it sheds light for #ExploringBabylon.
In flight, after stealing his brother’s blessing (last week’s portion), Jacob pauses for the night:
וַיַּחֲלֹם, וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה, וְרֹאשׁוֹ, מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה; וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ
And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
— Gen 28:12 (Old JPS translation)
This dream, particularly its image of angels first ascending and then descending, has been the source of many tales and lessons. One such commentary, from Midrash Tanchuma (c. 500-800 CE), involves Babylon and taxes, and leads us to consider what Judaism demands regarding economic justice.
The Four Exiles
Earlier in #ExploringBabylon, we encountered two midrashim reading four exiles, or foreign dominations, into biblical text without apparent connection to exile: The first involved the earliest stages of Creation, Gen 1:2 (see “Babylon and the Beginning“); the second, the Binding of Isaac, Gen 22:13 (see “Entangled and Free“). Midrash Tanchuma Vayetze 2 uses a similar trope.
As in the previous examples, national exile is nowhere explicit in the biblical text, but an anxious uncertainty in the story provides a link. Here, Jacob’s precarious, liminal situation and God’s dream promise to “keep you wherever you go and bring you back into this land” (Gen 28:15), is linked to Israel’s national fate.
Two versions of dream commentary contain small variations that make for big midrashic differences. (The translations below are from Midrash Tanchuma-Yelammedenu, by Samuel A. Berman. Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1996).
Ascent and Descent
In version #1 of the dream midrash, God shows Jacob four specific angels:
- the guardian angel of Babylon ascending seventy rungs of the ladder and descending,
- the guardian angel of Media ascending fifty-two rungs of the ladder and descending,
- the guardian angel of Greece ascending one hundred [I’ve also seen 180] rungs of the ladder and descending, and
- the guardian angel of Edom ascending the ladder
— Tanchuma Vayetze 2 (Berman, p.185)
Jacob could not see an end to this fourth angel’s ascent and so “cried out in terror: Perhaps Edom will never be compelled to descend.” God’s response is described with a combination of verses from the Tanakh:
Therefore fear thou not, O Jacob My servant, saith the LORD; neither be dismayed, O Israel; for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall again be quiet and at ease, and none shall make him afraid.
Though thou make thy nest as high as the eagle, and though thou set it among the stars, I will bring thee down from thence, saith the LORD.
— Jer 30:10, Obad 4
Here, as in the Creation (Gen 1:2) and the Akedah (Gen 22:13) midrashim, three of the four exiles/dominations are complete. The final domination persists: the “wicked empire,” rule of Teman (an Edomite clan), and Edom, in the Creation, Akedah, and Dream midrashim, respectively, all ways of referring to Rome. In the earlier midrashim, oppression will end with a messianic spirit (Creation story) and the ram’s horn (Akedah). Here, Roman rule seems endless, and Jacob despairs.
This version stops with Jacob’s despair and God’s assurance.
Faith and Taxes
In Version #2, “R. Berechiah, in the name of R. Helbo, and R. Simeon the son of Yosinah, maintained” that Jacob sees the fourth angel descend and God then asks Jacob why he does not ascend.
Whereupon our patriarch Jacob became distressed and asked: Shall I too be forced to descend, just as these are? The Holy One, blessed be He, responded: If you ascend, you will not be required to descend. Nevertheless, he did not ascend, for his faith was not sufficiently strong.
— Tanchuma Vayetze 2 cont. (Berman, pp.185-186)
R. Simeon ben Yosinah adds an interpretation of Ps 78:32, “For all this they sinned still, and believed not in His wondrous works,” to make Jacob’s failure more explicit:
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Jacob: If you had ascended and trusted Me, you would never have been compelled to descend, but since you did not have faith, your descendants will be oppressed by these four kingdoms with imposts, taxes on their crops, and poll-tax.
— Tanchuma Vayetze 2 cont. (Berman, p.186)
Similarly to the midrashim on Gen 1:2 and 22:13, Version #2 has Jacob cry out: “Will this oppression continue forever?”
As in Version #1 above, God’s response is taken from Jer 30:10. Here, however, a second verse(30:11) is used to explain in detail how Jacob will survive while other nations perish. The key involves economic justice:
That is to say, “I will make an end of all the nations” (Jer 30:11) that reap their fields completely, but since the people of Israel do not reap their fields completely, “of thee I will not make an end.”
— Tanchuma Vayetze 2 cont. (Berman, p.186)
The “people of Israel do not reap completely” refers to the mitzvah of “corners [pe’ah],” found in Leviticus:
And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest.
And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather the fallen fruit of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the LORD your God.
— Lev 19:9-10; also Lev 23:22
The declaration that “corners” has “no prescribed measure” — that is, no upper limit — opens Mishnah tractate Pe’ah. Importance of this mishnah (Pe’ah 1:1) is stressed by its inclusion as a passage for daily study in many prayerbooks.
Jeffrey Spitzer, of American Hebrew Academy (Greesboro, NC), provides an overview of the mitzvah and its contemporary applications, for My Jewish Learning. He suggests equating pe’ah with withholding tax:
One does not even own one’s income until one has separated out the portion for the poor; one holds them briefly in trust for the poor. The challenge is to consider one’s tzedakah like the taxes that are withheld from income; it never really was yours anyway.
— Spitzer, “Pe’ah: The Corners of Our Fields”
This withholding model helps explain the link between Jacob’s dream, as portrayed in this midrash, and ancient Israel’s national economic behavior. The upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., and the economics of “Black Friday,” make this a particularly good time to consider what R. Simeon ben Yosinah meant us to learn from Jacob’s dream. More on this in chapter 7.2 of #ExploringBabylon. Meanwhile —
Questions to Consider
(1) What is the relationship between the midrash’s claim that Jacob lacks faith and the vow he makes when he awakens?
Consider what Jacob tells God the morning after the dream:
And Jacob vowed a vow, saying: ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the LORD be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.’
— Gen 28:20-22
Deuteronomy 10:18 says that God “loves the stranger, giving him food and raiment,” and some commentators say Jacob was asking no more than this. But, might it be that Jacob is showing a lack of faith by demanding the equivalent of income to which he is not (yet) entitled?
(2) How does the concept of pe’ah at the close of midrash version #2 relate to the particular kind of oppression the people experience?
(3) What can we learn from R. Simeon ben Yosinah’s labeling of taxes as oppression?
Of related interest: See this article on ancient taxation. Note how often taxes, especially those imposed by foreign powers, are discussed in the Talmud and other ancient records (including Christian Gospels). More on Rome and ancient Israel.
Or perhaps a stairway. The Hebrew word “sulam” סֻלָּם is a one of those words used only once in the Tanakh (“hapax legomenon“), so determining exact meaning is a challenge.
The Book of Obadiah (21 verses in its entirety) is introduced as “the vision of Obadiah…concerning Edom.” Obadiah is dated to the period leading to Babylonian Captivity, during which it seems that Edom switched alliances. Centuries later, when the Roman, and then the Byzantine, Empire ruled the entire region — until mid-7th Century CE — “Edom” came to stand in for this seemingly endless outside force.
“For I am with thee, saith the LORD, to save thee; for I will make a full end of all the nations whither I have scattered thee, but I will not make a full end of thee; for I will correct thee in measure, and will not utterly destroy thee.”
— Jer 30:11
Tanchuma Vayetzei’s third teaching about Jacob’s ladder concludes with an explanation of this “correct thee in measure” phrase:
I will punish you, O Israel, in this world in order to cleanse you of your iniquities for the sake of the world-to-come. Hence it is said: And he dreamed.
— Tanchuma Vayetzei 2