The “ladder” dream that Jacob had when he left home as a youth (Gen. 28:12) remained in the patriarch’s memory all his life, and the whole family knew about it. He even mentioned it to them when he lay on his deathbed (Gen. 48:4).
He seems to have made a deal with God in the course of this famous dream: “If God will go with me… then shall the Lord be my God”.
Does this mean that unless God does certain things Jacob will not believe in Him?
If this were the case, we in later generations would be entitled to say, “If God makes me rich (or powerful, or successful, or safe) I will believe in Him: otherwise He and I are finished with each other”.
The explanation of Abravanel is that Jacob was unsure whether to treat his dream as night-time fantasising – to be brushed off and forgotten – or as genuine prophecy. He was not saying, “God, I am finished with You unless You do all the things I ask”, but “If certain things come about, it will confirm God’s existence and power and my right to trust in Him”.
In this sense the dream is a prophecy – “God will bring about a number of events and this will assure me that He is God and I am right to worship Him.”
Jewish history understands all this but seems to have come to an even higher conclusion – not just that when God answers our prayers we know He is God, but even when He doesn’t answer us, at least not in the way we expect Him to, He is still our God.
As a tzaddik is said to have remarked in time of tragedy, “God, You are doing all You can to make me stop believing in You – but I warn You, it will not help You one little bit. Not even You will stop me believing in You!”