If it's too good to be true, it probably isn't." - ancient proverb "You have to be realistic" - a thing that people say This week's parsha presents us with a sharp contrast between characters. On the one hand, Yaakov Avinu dreams of a ladder reaching heaven next to him. As he slumbers, angels climb up and down, providing him direct access to the divine. So glorious is his circumstance that Hashem Himself climbs down the ladder to stand over him in the vision. Yaakov truly reaches for the skies.
On the other hand, we still remember the people of Babel from Parshat Noach who also attempted to reach heaven. They, too, dreamed of greatness. They began to build a tower. But their vision was unrealized, their quest ultimately unsuccessful. What is the difference between Yaakov and the people of Babel?
Many points distinguish these two stories. However, two stand out the most. The first is why they reached so high. Ya'akov stretched to the heavens so that he might commune with G-d. Eventually, his desire was so earnest that G-d came down that ladder and settled on him. Ya'akov became the platform for G-d's revelation because he didn't seek that contact for personal advancement. Instead, he wanted the connection for its own sake. The people of Babel, in contrast, wanted to make a name for themselves. They reached heaven so that they would be famous and known forever. Like Icarus, they flew higher and higher for glory, and eventually, they failed, and their presumptuousness broke their civilization. However, the second point is even more salient. Ya'akov does not take it upon himself to build the ladder. Instead, he does it in partnership with the divine. A cornerstone of Jewish belief is working hard for outcomes we believe in and tempering our ambition with the knowledge that we cannot succeed without assistance. Ya'akov deployed this understanding and ultimately became the progenitor of a people, the People of Israel, who shook the world despite their small numbers.
In our own lives, we should never forget these two lessons. We must always hope for help from others, especially from G-d, and we must never act simply from pride. With this approach, we can hope for much success, and only the sky (and maybe not even the sky) will be the limit.