Jacob’s Dream and What’s Ours

Exploring Babylon Chapter 7.2

In the previous episode of #ExploringBabylon, I shared a pair of midrashim about Jacob’s Dream (Gen 28:12) from Midrash Tanchuma-Yelammedenu Vayetze 2. In Dream “Version #2,” God blames Jacob’s lack of faith, evidenced by his failure to ascend the ladder, for future oppression of Israel by Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome:

…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; full citation in previous post)

Version #2 concludes with a promise that the people will be saved due to the practice of pe’ah [corners], i.e., not harvesting one’s fields entirely, but leaving the corners for the poor (Lev 19:9-10, 23:22). Chapter 7.1 noted a few questions that this raises about the relationship between oppression and taxes, on the one hand, and faith, on the other. Here are further thoughts.

Let’s begin with the commandment of pe’ah, and travel backward through the midrashic territory.

Removing Wealth

1) Pe’ah, we learned, may be compared to withholding tax: “One does not even own one’s income until one has separated out the portion for the poor,” like “taxes that are withheld from income; it never really was yours anyway” (Jeffrey Spitzer, “Pe’ah: The Corners of Our Fields“). The mitzvah of pe’ah, and the associated attitude toward one’s earnings, is what will save the people from annihilation, according to Dream Version #2.

Biblical and rabbinic text focus a great deal on what individuals owe to the community, particularly to the most vulnerable — and pe’ah is just one of many related mitzvot that we might understand, following Spitzer, as akin to taxation for the public good. But ancient “taxation,” in ancient Jewish views, was something else.

2) The oppression, suffered under four kingdoms in Dream Version #2, encompasses “imposts, taxes on their crops, and poll-tax.” These taxes remove wealth from the local community for the needs of empire — be it Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Rome. Removing wealth from subject populations served to support the empire while also reducing the chance of rebellion in the provinces.

Such taxes, imposed from outside, were not viewed in Jewish tradition as commonweal-supporting. In addition, some ancient taxes were specifically designed to be punitive, such as poll-taxes on Jews in the wake of the 1st Century CE rebellion; diverting taxes from the Temple in Jerusalem to instead finance a temple for Jupiter in Rome was seen (and intended) as a particular affront.

3) In Dream Version #2, God announces that the kind of tax-oppression Jews experienced, as subjects of four foreign empires, can be explained by Jacob’s lack of faith and failure to ascend the ladder.

We don’t get Jacob’s side of the story. But we have a small clue in the text that follows the dream. When Jacob awakens, he makes a vow using an “if-then” construction:

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 of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.’
— Gen 28:20-22

Most commentators read this, as discussed in “Jacob’s Contract with God,” as conditional only “in the way any contract or agreement is conditional” or as another form of affirming the covenantal relationship God has just announced. But I hear something else.

What’s Ours

Jacob, on the road to Haran, has just lost his home and any mundane sense of security. He hopes the sojourn will be temporary but does not yet know for sure and is not assured of future success, or even of shelter ahead. God’s promise is amazing, but Jacob sins by not grasping it.

“For all this they sinned still, and believed not in His wondrous works” (Psalm 78:32), we read in Dream Version #2. “Jacob” has shifted from a patriarch alone on the road to his national persona, which includes us.

We know from later text and tradition that the covenant God established with Abraham and Sarah, with Isaac and Rebecca, now reiterated with Jacob, obligates us to sharing resources in the ways outlined above, the mitzvah of pe’ah being a prime example. We are meant to acknowledge, all the time, in our thought and in our economic behavior that whatever we have is by the grace of God and not because we’re somehow entitled.

But Jacob, in his vow, sounds very like most of us most of the time: willing enough to give tzedakah, or otherwise contribute to the community, only after our own financial security is assured. This is a luxury denied to many.

And we have a great deal of work to do, as individuals, as communities, and on the national scale in the U.S., to examine what is ours and re-think how “our” stuff is distributed. This holiday of Thanksgiving calls those of us who are not of indigenous descent to carefully examine “ours” in the context of this land and its bounty. We must also look, nationally, at what is “ours” in the context of labor stolen from millions of enslaved people.

This is what I hear in Jacob’s dream. What about you?



“POLL TAX”
When I first encountered the midrash about poll-taxes, I confess my first thought was this was some kind of anachronistic reference to voting rights. For anyone else who may be confused….

“Poll,” meaning “head,” is used in two common, inter-related ways: Poll-taxes, since ancient times, are levied per person, as opposed to taxes on crops (income) or property, and imposed for a variety of reasons; history has seen a number of poll-taxes specifically aimed at Jewish communities. Poll is also used in voting contexts, where each “head” has a say in an election.

These two uses collide in the United States, where poll-taxes — in the sense of taxes on an individual, rather than on income or property — were used as a barrier to the polling place. The 24th Amendment made such use on the federal level unconstitutional in 1964, and subsequent rulings outlawed their use in state elections. Prior to that, poll taxes were used to prevent many people, primarily black citizens of the South, from exercising the right to vote.
BACK

Babylon, Taxes, and Thanksgiving

1

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)


Economic Justice

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?

Notes

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.


Sulam
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.
TOP


Edom
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.
BACK


Jeremiah 30:11
“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

RETURN

House of God

The story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10ff) uses three place names for the same spot: “Gate of Heaven” and “Beth-El [House of God]” as well as Luz, discussed yesterday.

The name “Beth El” is the center of a Talmudic commentary:

R. Eleazar also said, What is meant by the verse, “And many people shall go and say: ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, To the house of the God of Jacob’” [Isaiah 2:3]. ‘The God of Jacob,’ but not the God of Abraham and Isaac?

Not like Abraham, in connection with whom ‘mountain’ is written, as it is said to this day, ‘In the mountain where the Lord is seen’ (Gen. 22:14). Nor like Isaac, in connection with whom ‘field’ is written, as it is said, ‘And Isaac when out to meditate in the field at eventide’ [Gen. 24:63]. But like Jacob, who called Him ‘home’, as it is said, ‘And he called the name of that place Beth-el [God is a home].
— Pesachim 88a, adapted from Soncino public-domain translation

—Soninco adds this note on the final verse: [Gen. 28:19] Visits to the mountain and the held are only made at certain times, but a home is permanent. Thus this teaches that man must live permanently in God.
Continue Reading

Vayeitzei: Language and Translation

Jacob departed from Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place which he arranged his head, and lay down in that place. And he dreamt and behold! A ladder [sulam (samech-lamed-mem)] was set earthward and its top reached heavenward; and behold! angels of God [malachei elohim] were ascending and descending on it. And behold! HASHEM was standing over him [alav]…

…and, look, a ramp [sulam] was set against the ground with its top reaching the heavens, and look, messengers of God [malachei elohim] were going up and coming down it. And, look, the LORD was poised over him [alav]….

…and YHVH was standing beside him [alav]…
Continue Reading