This week, we encounter a word for the first time in our biblical tradition — the word is chalom, which means "dream" in Hebrew.
After a difficult interaction with his brother — and at the insistence of his mother and ultimately the urging of his father — Jacob high tails it for his uncle's house. But on his way to Uncle Laban, in a place called Beit El, Jacob "dreamed a dream … and saw a ladder firmly implanted on the ground with its head reaching heaven."
However you analyze this dream — be it a prophecy of the Land of Israel, a mystical experience of the altar in the future Temple in Jerusalem (both suggestions of our sages in the Midrash) or just a dream — there is a wonderful spirit that we, Jacob's children, can feel and imbibe from it.
It says something large and wonderful about how to dream and, as a result, also about how to live.
Note carefully that the ladder was firmly ensconced on the ground. The Jewish mandate is to be a "pragmatic dreamer." Yes, look heavenward, aspire to reach nobler heights, but always have your feet firmly planted on the ground. It is not the Jewish dream to live with your head in the clouds, so to speak.
Feet on the Ground
Part and parcel of the Jewish dream is to be firmly rooted in the needs and concerns of the community. Existence cannot be isolated or fully individualized.
A Chasidic rebbe once boldly asserted that Judaism is a religion that teaches atheism [sic] par excellence.
When one is in need, do not say, "God will help."
When one is in pain, do not say, "God will help."
Rather, the rebbe continued, put God aside, and you yourself help.
It was the giant of the Mussar movement of Orthodox Judaism, Reb Yisrael Salanter, who famously remarked in Yiddish: Yenems gashmius iz mine ruchniyus — "the others' physical welfare becomes my spiritual welfare."
Jacob dreamed of a ladder.
And Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke eloquently about the "ladder of observance."
Judaism and Jewish life is not — and cannot be — a zero-sum game. We can ascend, one rung at a time and one mitzvah at a time — a sacred deed expressed and a sacred moment shared.
So how does one actualize a dream?
There's only one way — you have got to wake up! We share a vision and common destiny of what this world can be and how we can uplift it, but we have to be awake and aware of the needs and the issues.
Being part and parcel of a larger community — the "covenantal community of faith" — as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchick called the Jewish people, affords us manifold opportunities for engagement.
How interesting that the Torah goes out of its way to remark that the location of this first dream was in Beit El — a place in the northern West Bank still recognized today.
But then the Torah adds a phrase that is somewhat elliptical: "But it's original name was Luz."
So, just as the first Jewish dream began back in Luz, let's pledge ourselves to this resplendent fraternity and sorority of Jewish dreams and dreamers of all ages.
You, too, can and must be a proud "Luzer."
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.