Things are not going well for Jacob.
After conspiring with his mother to fool his father into thinking that he was his older brother (got it?), Jacob's older brother Esau is furious. And rightfully so! Jacob tricked Isaac into giving him a blessing on his deathbed, as opposed to Esau. Scared that Esau will hurt him, or perhaps even kill him, Jacob runs away.
This portion starts immediately with the continuation of these events. Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.
Jacob awakes from his dream and exclaims the famous line, Surely God was in this place, and I did not know it.
A few observations:
1) God is always present.
This is hugely important to our understanding of Judaism. Jacob's exhortation teaches that God's presence is always with us, if only we open our eyes. It reminds me of Rabbi Nachman's answer to the question: Where do you find God? He said, Wherever I choose to. Jacob realizes that God has always been with him, and will always be with him.
2) A Jewish life is not free from pain
Jacob has not had an easy childhood. Granted, he brought much of it on himself, but still - his brother wants to kill him, he has run away from home, and he is by himself. Having knowledge of what's to come, we also know that he is forced to work 7 years to marry the woman he loves, Rachel, only to be swindled himself, tricked into marrying Rachel's older sister, Leah. It isn't until after 21 years of servitude that Jacob is able to leave the vice-like grip that Lavan holds over him.
In his dream, Jacob sees the angels going up and down a ladder. One interpretation posits that the angels are both moving toward God and away from God. Again, this mirror's our own lives. No single life is full of only good deeds or only wicked deeds. Each of us moves up the ladder and we move down the ladder.
Lastly, I want to talk about Jacob's encounter with God. This is called a theophany, an intense, personal experience with God. Several characters in the Torah have them - Adam and Eve, Cain, Abraham, and many others.
But there is a theophany in the Torah that is very similar to what happens here with Jacob, and that is Moses' encounter of God at the burning bush.
Recalling the story from Exodus, Moses kills the Egyptian taskmaster and then runs away, fearful of punishment and death from his adopted father, Pharoah.
Both Moses and Jacob have done things that are problematic at one extreme, and downright awful at the other. After their respective actions, they run away, scared for their lives. And this is when they experience God.
But there's something else - Moses and Jacob experience their individual theophany only after making a fairly drastic change in their lives. God honors their openness and courage, even as it is mixed with past mistakes, fear and doubt.
For me, that's the most important lesson from Jacob's dream. Yes, God is in this place although sometimes we do not know. But coupled with that is the inspiration that sometimes we need to change course. Hopefully that doesn't entail running away, God forbid, but rather inspires us to run toward openness and change, toward blessing and righteousness, so that we continue to climb the rungs of Jacob's ladder.