Vayeitzei – Stairway to Peoplehood

Sometimes an idea can only be possible after a certain point in history. One example might have to do with the imagery of Yaakov’s dream at the start of the parsha.

The message delivered to our forefather during that prophecy was “To you shall I give [Cna’an], and to your children.”  And: “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you, and through your children.” Yaakov, in his dream, is being reassured that, unlike Avraham and Yitzchak, all of his children will comprise the Jewish nation.

Even the stone on which he rested his head that night and later made into a monument to the revelation he received carries that message. According to the Midrash, it had originally been many stones, which fused into one, a metaphor for the family unity he would achieve. Rashi even comments elsewhere (Beraishis, 49:24) that the word for “stone” (even) itself is a contraction of the words av and ben, “father” and “son.”

But then there is the sulam, usually translated “ladder,” which plays the central role in Yaakov’s dream imagery.

The word occurs only this one time in the Torah, and its etymology is unclear.  But an Arabic cognate of the word refers to steps ascending a mountain.  The easiest way to ascend a mountain is a spiral path. That fact, and the possibly related Aramaic word “mesalsel” – to twist into curls – might lead one to imagine Yaakov’s ladder as something akin to a spiral staircase.

Which speculation leads to a fascinating thought that couldn’t have been thought until the 1960s.

Considering that the assurance given Yaakov in his dream was essentially a “genetic” one – that all his progeny would be part of Klal Yisrael — might the sulam have been not a simple ladder but rather something reminiscent of, and symbolizing, the essential structure of the molecule that carries genetic information – a double helix?

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

 My most recent Ami column, “Meet the Mess,” can be read here.

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