You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Vayeitzei.
From Rabbi Jill Hammer The Jewish Book of Days
As animals in cold climates sink into dreaming, we read the sections of the Torah telling of Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah, and of Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel. During the weeks of Kislev, we study the mythic dreams of our ancestors and use them to burrow into our own thoughts and memories.
Jacob’s first dream is of the ladder to heaven, with angels going up and down on it. An ancient midrash drawing on the Jewish tradition of dream interpretation, tells that the ladder was really not a ladder at all but Jacob himself. Like a root in the earth,
Jacob draws energy of the heavens into him, and the angels move up and down his spine as if through the trunk of a tree.
In Kislev, in the cold, we are aware of the warm energy flowing in our bodies. Dreams and visions rise up and sink down in us, helping us understand the past and shape the future. Our spines, and our dreams, are a way for us to travel between sky and earth.
The Keys of the Hidden Realms
Many of the stories read in the Torah during this season relate to the opening of the womb. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel all struggle with infertility. We relate to their longings for birth. In Heshvan, as we pray for rain, we hope for openings of the sky and of the self.
A midrash teaches the Divine holds three keys: the key of the womb, the key of the grave (which is also the key of rebirth), and the key of rain. Some add a fourth key: the key of livelihood or sustenance. The key of sustenance allows Abraham to gather wealth and Sarah to receive gifts from Pharaoh. The key of rain blesses the wells of Isaac and the flocks of Rachel and Jacob. The key of birth opens the wombs of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. The key of the grave saves Isaac from sacrifice.
The four keys also relate to the four seasons. The key of the birth refers to the spring, the season of Passover (Pesach), when the Israelite nation is born. The key of the grave refers to the summer, the time of Tisha b’Av, when the Jewish people is nearly destroyed but rises from its ashes. The key of sustenance refers to the autumn, when we gather in the harvest. The winter season holds the key of the rain. In Heshvan, we ask that as winter approaches, the treasury of rain be opened to us.
Texts cited in these teachings are:
Genesis 28:12-14, Genesis Rabbah 68:12,Genesis 25:21-22, Genesis Rabbah 73:4
From Rabbi Lawrence Kushner Five Cities of Refuge
In Song of Songs 5:2, we read, “I was asleep but my heart was awake.” What is it about ordinary, waking consciousness that seems to filter out experience of the sacred? We intuit that something more must be out there, but in order to see it, we have to close our eyes. Our nights, on the other hand, are often cluttered with holy encounters–inspiring and terrifying. But they always seem to remain just beyond reach, inaccessble, their content either ephemeral or opaque.
Jacob’s dream is probably the most powerful and transformative personal encounter with the divine in the entire Torah. Equally noteworthy is that the event must be anchored in waking reality. Jacob does this by setting up a pile of rocks to mark the spot. And, because even the memory of such an experience is so slippery, the one who received it must establish the place, mark the coordinates in ordinary space. And so Jacob sets up a memorial to something that happened in the night and names it the dwelling place of God.
Rabbi Leah Novick
Rabbi Leah Novick in On the Wings of the Shekhinah says that, “the Zohar regards Leah’s role as founder of the tribes and mother of future leaders as representing the Upper Mother, Binah, who gives birth to planets and stars.” Reb Leah says that Rachel is transformed by the mystics “from the beautiful earthly wife into the lower Shechinah who watches over the the people of Israel. She becomes associated with the realm of Malkhut, the attribute located at the base of the Tree of Life” .
Reb Leah also writes, “In the mystical tradition, Bilhah and Zilpah are the ‘handmaidens’ of the Shekhinah, almost like the two cherubs who flank the Ark of the Covenant. In mystical thought, Rachel and Leah endure as twin aspects of Shekhinah or embodiments of the Divine Presence. Because of the importance of the sisters, the Jewish midnight prayers enunciated on behalf of the planet, called tikkun chazot, are directed to both. That concept leads to regarding women–particularly mothers –as the closest representation of the Divine Mother we can know in earthly form. While the Midrash gives us hints about the spiritual power of the matriarchs, we do not know the specific nature of their practices. New midrashim by women scholars and fiction writers like Anita Diamante (The Red Tent) help keep the mystery alive.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Dreams, vows, and changes (Radical Torah repost)
Here’s the d’var Torah I wrote about this week’s portion in 2006 for Radical Torah.
Jacob then made a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house — Adonai shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.
Early in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, Jacob — having set out for Haran, and camped in “a certain place” with his head on a stone — has a prophetic dream, in which a stairway or ladder reaches from earth to the heavens, with angels going up and down its length. When Jacob wakes, he is shaken; he says, “surely God was in this place and I did not know it!”
Then he takes the stone upon which he had rested his head, and sets it up as a pillar, and pours oil on the top of it. And he makes a vow of connection with God. It’s a strangely conditional vow, which seems to articulate their bond as a kind of quid pro quo. Are we to infer, then, that Jacob’s cleaving to God is conditional? Exactly what kind of vow is this that Jacob has made?
In his commentary on Vayetzei (published in The Torah Anthology: Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez, translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan; also available online), the Me’am Lo’ez notes that traditional commentary broadens Jacob’s vow in the following ways:
[I]f God will be with me, keeping all his promises, so that I will not lack anything. And if I return in peace, innocent of sin, not influenced by Laban. If I am protected from spreading malicious gossip, from gazing at strange women and listening to them sing (since this is tantamount to lewdness), from publicly embarrassing another (which is considered like murder), and from purposely ignoring the poor (which is also like bloodshed). If Your name is associated with me from the beginning to the end, that none of my offspring should be unworthy, then I accept upon myself that this stone which I have erected as a monument will become God’s Temple. Of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe to You.
At first glance, this seems to make the vow even more conditional. Now it seems that Jacob is making his promise contingent not only on God remaining with him in his journey, ensuring his food and clothing, and watching over him unil he is safely home again — but also on God protecting him from a series of malicious actions (spreading gossip, embarrassing others, ignoring the poor) which seem entirely within Jacob’s control. Why should he need to hang his vow on whether or not God protects him from his own misdeeds — aren’t those misdeeds choices he himself will make?
Well, yes and no. The tradition presumes that while each of us is able to choose her or his actions freely, it also presumes that one’s choices, and one’s life, are continually caught between one’s yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) and yetzer ha-ra (evil or chaotic inclination.) Jacob makes his vow conditional not because he doubts God, but because he doubts himself — he knows that he may fall into patterns of wrong or petty behavior, and he wants God’s help in holding up his own side of the bargain.
But why does he frame the vow as an “if…then” statement? What’s iffy about it? Jacob’s vision showed him clearly that God was present in that place, and God promised to stick with him wherever he might go. So when he says “If God remains with me,” he can’t be articulating concern that God might actually abandon him. There is no place where God is not, and God’s commitment to him is clear.
Maybe what he’s really saying is, “If I am able to remain conscious of God’s presence with me; if I can awaken myself to God’s protection as I journey…then I will be able to fully commit myself to connection with God.” The vow, in other words, is a statement primarily about Jacob: his limitations, his hopes and fears, and the kind of covenantal partner he hopes, with God’s help, to be.
The Me’am Lo’ez has much to say on the subject of vows:
Actually, it is not good to be too quick to make vows. From this story of Jacob, however, we learn that when a person is in trouble, it is a good deed to pledge money for charity or make a vow to study Torah.
The Torah therefore says, “Jacob made a vow, saying (lemor).” As a general rule, wherever the Torah uses the expression “lemor,” it indicates that the statement was meant to be told to others. Since no one else was present, to whom should Jacob’s message be conveyed? The Torah alludes to the fact that Jacob’s statement was meant to teach a lesson to all generations: in a time of trouble one may make vows to do good.
Although one does not actually do anything when he makes a vow, the merit of the good deed he intends to do protects him in advance and rescues him from trouble.
I wouldn’t be so sure that making a vow doesn’t actually “do” anything. To be sure, no visible outward change arises. If I were to vow today to exercise regularly in the month of December, or to daven with greater kavvanah in shul this Shabbat, or to hand a dollar to the Salvation Army bell-ringer every time I enter the grocery store, there would be no noticeable change in the fabric of my world. (And, by the same token, were I to break any of those vows, it’s likely no one would notice, much less call me on it.)
But when we make promises, we change ourselves in subtle ways. This is why Jewish tradition takes vows so seriously. Our vows say something about who we are, and who we hope to become. When we make vows we can’t, or don’t, fulfil, a kind of intangible detritus settles in our hearts. (This is why the Kol Nidre prayer, and the full experience of Yom Kippur, can be so powerful — they allow us to clean our emotional and spiritual filters of a year’s worth of lapsed promises, to each other and to ourselves, so that divine abundance can flow freely into our lives again.)
In any event, though I quibble with his assertion that making vows doesn’t “do” anything, I like the Me’am Lo’ez’s argument that when a person is in trouble, it is good to pledge money for tzedakah or to make a vow to study Torah. He knows that when we make promises that we know will make a difference, we want to live up to them. That our vows shape our way of being in the world.
Like Jacob, we are all prone to losing sight of God’s presence on our journeys. But if his vow is meant to serve as an example to us, maybe it can inspire us toward the heights he hoped for. If we can remember that God is with us; if we can muster gratitude for the multitude of blessings in our lives; then we, too, can lay claim to the Source of All as our God. And then every stone we encounter can be a place of connection with the Holy Blessed One; and we will be able to set aside a tithe from the rich gifts God has given us, both physical and spiritual, to give back to the wide and wonderful world.
Reb Rachel, in 2007 writes about Jacobs dream of the ladder:
The dream he has there is, quite literally, awesome. Ladder, angels, conversation with God! There’s one thing I would render differently than does the JPS translation; I understand the ladder to be planted not on the ground, but in it. It’s rooted firmly in creation, and it stretches into supernal realms.
The angels, we read, ascend and then descend. My dear teacher Reb Marcia has asked the question: don’t we usually imagine angels starting out in heaven and coming down here to creation? What are these angels, which go up before coming down? And the answer she offers is, these are the angels of our prayers. When we bestir ourselves to pray, our prayers ascend. In return, holy abundance flows back down the ladder into creation and into our hearts. In that sense, we can make every place where we dwell — every place where we pray — a kind of Beersheva, where spiritual sustenance flows freely, watering the thirsty earth of our hearts.
Reb Sholom Brodt:
In the second verse of our parsha we learn:
Verse 11: He happened upon the place and he spent the night there because the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place and arranged them around his head; and lay down [to sleep] in that place.
Rashi immediately explains the seemingly superfluous phrase “and he lay down [to sleep] in that place.” This is an exclusory term, i.e. in that place he lay down. But for the fourteen years that he studied in the house of Eiver, he did not lay down at night, for he was involved in the study of Torah.
In another Midrash, (Bereishis Rabbah 68:11) the Rabbis teach that Yaakov Avinu also did not lay down to sleep during the entire twenty years that he spent living in Lavan’s home.
Now this place where Yaakov lay down was no ordinary place. Yaakov had an extraordinary dream there:
12. He dreamed: behold a ladder was set up on earth and the top of it reached toward heaven; and behold angels of Elokim were ascending and descending on it.
13. And behold Hashem stood above it [him], and said, “I Am Hashem, G-d of Abraham, your father, and G-d of Yitzchak. The land upon which you are lying, I will give to you and to your descendants.
And when he awoke he said:
16. …”In truth, Ad-noy is in this place, and I did not know it.
17. He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of Elokim, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Apparently, Yaakov Avinu’s “avodah” — service of Hashem — required that he should always be upright. Why then, the Rebbe asks, was it necessary for him sleep particularly in this holy place, on the very grounds that were destined for the Beit Hamikdash?
When standing erect or sitting upright, the head is the highest point of the body, and its advantage over the rest of the body is apparent. When lying down the head and the torso are on the same level and the advantage of the head over body is not apparent.
Before Hashem all is equal; there is no distinction between higher and lower; all parts of creation are equal. Higher and lower are meaningful terms to us and we actually cannot logically comprehend that to Hashem there are no such distinctions. In the Beit Hamikdash we would prostrate ourselves before Hashem. Bowing down before Hashem represents our “bittul” — self nullification before Him, including the nullification of our restricted and restrictive concepts.
In the Kodesh Hakodoshim — the Holy Of Holies, the innermost sanctuary of the Holy Temple, the laws of space were suspended. Here it was revealed that Hashem is beyond time and space even within space.
Yaakov lay down to sleep particularly in “this holy House of Elokim” where the Shechina dwells and the light of the Holy One blessed be He, is revealed in this world. In the presence of such revelation there is no higher and there is no lower, all is equal before Him.
And this occurred just as Yaakov was about to leave the Holy Land and enter into the anger of the world. The Rebbe explains that this revelation of Hashem’s light to Yaakov served to prepare him for his journey into “galut” – exile — into the anger of the world, into the house of Lavan.
Yaakov feared most of all that he would not be able to serve Hashem appropriately and as well being outside of Eretz Yisrael, the Holy Land. Hashem therefore caused Yaakov to “lie down” in His Holy place, where there is no distinction between higher and lower, to convey to him that he need not fear going to the “lower” — to the house of Lavan, and that he would be able to achieve serving Hashem successfully and completely even in Lavan’s house.
Hashem further revealed to Yaakov: “Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth. You shall spread to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south.” (28:14) The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 25:8) explains that when your children will be so impoverished as “the dust of the earth” then a great miracle will occur and “You shall spread to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south.” As it says in the Psalms, “He raises up the poor one from the dust of the earth.”
The Rebbe brings a teaching from the holy Ohr Hachayim that Yaazkov’s going into exile represents the descent of the soul from its heavenly abode into a physical body. And this descent, as explained in Chassidut is for the sake of an ascent.
The Rebbe explains the meaning of this blessing- “and your children will be as the dust of the earth”- it is by coming down to this world of dust, where the soul gets to make the lowest of worlds into a dwelling place for Hashem, that it will merit the blessing of spreading “to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south” – beyond limitations.
Rabbi Shefa Gold
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(And he went forth)
Jacob goes on a journey, guided by dreams and visions, and develops a relationship with God.
JACOB’S JOURNEY IS BLESSED at its outset with a dream and with a moment of awakening. In the dream God shows Jacob the stairway that connects the realms of Heaven and Earth and then gives him a promise. Through this blessing we ourselves become that stairway, that connection, with our feet planted in the foundation of Earth and our crowns open to the expanse of Heaven. Through us the Divine flow pours down into the earthly realms. Through us the pleasures and miseries of earthly experience are offered up to The Divine Expanse.
When I become available to this flow, I am awakened to the most awesome and transformative truth. God was here all along and I didn’t know it. THIS is none other than the House of God. THIS is the Gate of Heaven. This very moment and this place here where I stand is at once God’s home and the doorway to all realms.
Our journey brings us the blessing of zeh – “This.” In becoming fully present to this moment – Here and Now – the Presence of God is revealed.
IN THE STORY OF VAYETZE, Jacob tries to negotiate with God. Perhaps he misunderstands the promise that was given to him in the dream. Perhaps he has forgotten the moment of awakening and become frightened. He wants assurance that the right food, clothing and peace will be available to him on the journey.
We would like to have the blessing of life given to us in the way we want it. Caught in our fears and desires we miss the true promise.
THE PROMISE: I will give you HAMAKOM, “the place,” the land of your life – to possess, to know, to inhabit, cultivate, refine. The awesome place that I give you is none other than the House of God – I live there at the heart of every molecule and I will shine out through the windows of your own eyes when they are open to this truth. And this awesome place is the Gate of Heaven – connecting all realms and dimensions, Heavens and Hells – connecting you with your wildest dreams.
I will give you descendents. You will be a delicate flower held up to the wind. You will be blown open, that your seeds may scatter and take root, blossoming in places you could not imagine. The winds of history and circumstance and coincidence will spread your essence, your song, your sigh, mixed with the pollens of desire, to the far corners of the world. Your fragrance will waft through the farthest garden.
Through you and your descendents, all the families of the earth will be blessed.
I am with you. I do not promise that it will be comfortable or that you will not suffer. I do not promise that you’ll never be hungry or feel despair. I do not promise that your heart will never be broken. My promise is simply that I am with you – in your suffering, your hunger, your despair, through your wandering, your stumbling, your confusion – (I am with you), “Anokhi Imach” 1 – even when you feel abandoned.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE of Vayetze calls me to fully engage in the journey, be taken up by the adventure of living, to open my heart to guidance with each step, and surrendere to the momentum and flow of my story. At the same time I must realize that I have already arrived. God is in THIS place, THIS moment, and all that I have to do is to become present. Each side of this paradox holds a spiritual challenge, as does the paradox itself.
I recently met an old man on the streets of Berkeley who said that the spirit of his grandmother sat on his shoulder and gave him guidance. She counseled him that the three most important qualities to cultivate on the journey of life were COURAGE, CURIOSITY and COMPASSION. Though the man seemed a bit odd, this grandmotherly advice has been valuable for me.
THE CHALLENGE OF JOURNEYING requires that I become a student of life, receiving each new circumstance, landscape, or dilemma as an opportunity for learning. My courage will allow me to overcome the paralysis that sometimes accompanies fear, so that I can take the next step. My curiosity will lead me onward and infuse the journey with joy. And compassion will open my heart, connect me with others, and heal the wounds that life inflicts.
This adventure of life is a journey towards God-realization. My commitment to exploration and travel on the roads that unfold before me is absolutely crucial to this realization…and yet…God was here all along and I didn’t know it. God, the ultimate reality is in THIS. This place, This moment. The challenge is to stand still with enough calm and spaciousness to be fully present to Presence itself.
I live in this paradox of journey and arrival – finding stillness in my journey, yet continuing to follow the path of awakening as it unfolds in the stillness.
1 Genesis 28:15
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website.
“And this stone which I [Yaakov] have set for a pillar, shall be Hashem’s house” (Bereshis 28:’12)
We find that at the at the Akeida, when Avraham brought Yitzchak as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah, “Avraham called the name of that place…the mountain where Hashem will appear” (Bereshis 22:14). Avraham sought to reveal Hashem’s existence to the world. During Avraham lifetime, very few people accepted his teachings. This is the implication of the word “mountain” in the verse relating to Avraham. Despite Avraham massive efforts, his teachings remained distant, beyond grasp and of the vast majority of people, just as a mountain is beyond the grasp and is not useful to most people.
When Yitzchak went to Mount Moriah to pray it states that “Yitzchak went out to the field to pray” (Bereshis 24:63). Yitzchak succeeded to a greater degree in revealing Hashem’s existence to the world than his father Avraham did. The use of the word “field” shows that, just like a field which is more accessible and more useful than a mountain, so was Yitzchak able to make Hashem more accessible to the world. Nevertheless, he was unable to make his teachings on a level which could be appreciated by all people.
When Yaakov slept on Mount Moriah it says, “Yaakov called the name of that place, the house of Hashem” (Bereshis 28:19). Yaakov was able to reveal Hashem’s existence to the world to such a degree that everyone was capable of experiencing and serving Hashem, just like a house is a place that everyone needs. The term house also indicates that people came to realize that one must pray to Hashem for one’s basic needs, such as health, children, and one’s livelihood, etc. They came to realize that prayer was not only reserved for the more abstract spiritual goals and for the achievement of human perfection. It is true that some people would come to recognize and serve Hashem on their own, through great difficulty, which is comparable to mountains and fields. Nevertheless, the vast majority of people are in need of security and comforts of a house to serve Hashem. For the majority of people are unable to serve Hashem totally devoid of the material necessities of daily living. When these people become aware of the advantages that devoting themselves to Hashem brings to their daily lives, this is the aspect of serving Hashem in the category of house.
The ultimate revelation of Hashem greatness is when prayer reaches the level of house. At such a time, even the gentiles and those Jews who are far away from spirituality will join in exalting His Name through prayer. As it is written, “For My [Hashem’s] house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” (Isaiah 56:7). (Likutei Morahan I:10:3)
From Vanessa L Ochs, Ph.D Sarah Laughed
Vanessa Ochs writes about Leah, “Leah does not go about blessing God as many men have done. She pens no psalms. She erects no stone altars. She sacrifices no animals. Her experience of God does not take place in an official building or under the direct supervision of clergy. Leah is like the many religious women who approach God quite autonomously, engaging in rituals that dramatize social ties with God, ancestors, family, and community. Leah’s style of blessing is immediate, personal, and informal. She blesses by naming…. Leah, according to Midrash, was the first to transform her feelings of gratitude into language, creating the words of prayer.”
Wendy’s comment: When I read this commentary a few years ago, my perception of Leah completely shifted.
What I find remearkable about Leah’s story is that once she gave herself over to gratitude with her 4th son
Judah, the power of blessing manifested. David, the master of prayer was a descendant of Judah and our tradition says that the Moshiach will come from the linneage of David.
And Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva, and he went to Charan (Genesis 28:10)
The story of Jacob’s journey to Charan is the story of every soul’s descent to the physical world.
The soul, too, leaves behind the spiritual idyll of Be’er Sheva (literally, “Well of the Seven” — a reference to the supernal source of the seven divine attributes or sefirot from which the soul derives) and journeys to Charan (literally, “Wrath”): a place of lies, deceptions, struggle and hardship; a place in which material concerns consume one’s days and nights, sapping one’s energy, confusing one’s priorities, and all but obscuring the purpose for which one has come there in the first place.
Yet it is in Charan, in the employ of Laban the Deceiver, not in the Holy Land and its “tents of learning,” that Jacob founds the nation of Israel. It is here that he marries and fathers eleven of the twelve sons who will become the twelve tribes of Israel. Had Jacob remained in the Holy Land, the life of this pious scholar who lived 3,500 years ago would have been of no significance to us today.
The soul, too, achieves its enduring significance only upon its descent into “Charan.” Only as a physical being, invested within a physical body and inhabiting a physical environment, can it fulfill the purpose of its creation, which is to build “a dwelling for G-d in the physical world.”
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
And he encountered (28:1the place 1)
“The place” is Mount Moriah (the “Temple Mount” in Jerusalem, where Abraham had bound Isaac upon the altar and where King Solomon would erect the Holy Temple).
A ladder stood on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven (28:12)
This is prayer.
Fulfill her week, and we will give you [Rachel] also (29:27)From this verse is derived the practice of the week of celebrations following a wedding (“Sheva Berachot”).
(Avot d’Rabbi Natan)
And it was told to Laban… that Jacob had fled… And he pursued after him a seven days’ journey; and overtook him in the Mountain of Gilad (31:22-23)
In other words, there are two types of “sparks of holiness” that a person redeems in the course of his life. The first are those which he consciously pursues, having recognized the potential for sanctity and goodness in an object or event in his life. The second are those which pursue him: opportunities which he would never have realized on his own — indeed, he may even do everything in his power to avoid them — since they represent potentials so lofty that they cannot be identified by his humanly finite perception. So his redemption of these “sparks” can only come about unwittingly, when his involvement with them is forced upon him by circumstances beyond his control.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
From Rav Kook
VaYeitzei: The Prayers of the Avot
According to the Talmud (Berachot 26b), the Avot (forefathers) instituted the three daily prayers:
•Abraham — Shacharit, the morning prayer.
•Isaac — Minchah, the afternoon prayer.
•Jacob — Ma’ariv, the evening prayer.
Is there an inner connection between these prayers and their founders?
Rav Kook wrote that each of these three prayers has its own special nature. This nature is a function of both the character of that time of day, and the pervading spirit of the righteous tzaddik who would pray at that time.
The Morning Stand
Abraham, the first Jew, established the first prayer of the day. He would pray at daybreak, standing before God:
“Abraham rose early in the morning, [returning] to the place where he had stood before God.” (Gen. 19:27)
Why does the Torah call attention to the fact that Abraham would stand as he prayed? This position indicates that the function of this morning prayer is to make a spiritual stand. We need inner fortitude to maintain the ethical level that we have struggled to attain. The constant pressures and conflicts of day-to-day life can chip away at our spiritual foundation. To counter these negative influences, the medium of prayer can help us, by etching holy thoughts and sublime images deeply into the heart. Such a prayer at the start of the day helps protect us from the pitfalls of worldly temptations throughout the day.
This function of prayer — securing a solid ethical foothold in the soul — is reflected in the name Amidah (“standing prayer”). It is particularly appropriate that Abraham, who successfully withstood ten trials and tenaciously overcame all who fought against his path of truth, established the ‘standing’ prayer of the morning.
Flowering of the Soul in the Afternoon
The second prayer, initiated by Isaac, is recited in the afternoon. This is the hour when the temporal activities of the day are finished, and we are able to clear our minds from the distractions of the world. The soul is free to express its true essence, unleashing innate feelings of holiness, pure love and awe of God.
The Torah characterizes Isaac’s afternoon prayer as sichah (meditation): “Isaac went out to meditate in the field towards evening” (Gen. 24:64). The word sichah also refers to plants and bushes (sichim), for it expresses the spontaneous flowering of life force. This is a fitting metaphor for the afternoon prayer, when the soul is able to naturally grow and flourish.
Why was it Isaac who established this prayer? Isaac exemplified the attribute of Justice ( midat hadin), so he founded the soul’s natural prayer of the afternoon. The exacting measure of law is applied to situations where one has deviated from the normal and accepted path.
Spontaneous Evening Revelation
And what distinguishes Ma’ariv, the evening prayer?
Leaving his parents’ home, Jacob stopped for the night in Beth-El. There he dreamed of ascending and descending angels and divine promises. Jacob awoke the following morning awestruck; he had not been aware of holiness of his encampment.
“He chanced upon the place and stayed overnight, for it became suddenly night.” (Gen. 28:11)
The “chance meeting” — a spiritual experience beyond the level to which the soul is accustomed — that is the special quality of the evening prayer. The night is a time of quiet solitude. It is a time especially receptive to extraordinary elevations of the soul, including prophecy and levels close to it.
Unlike the other two prayers, the evening prayer is not obligatory. But this does not reflect a lack of importance; on the contrary, the essence of the evening prayer is an exceptionally uplifting experience. Precisely because of its sublime nature, this prayer must not be encumbered by any aspect of rote obligation. It needs to flow spontaneously from the heart. The voluntary nature of the evening prayer is a continuation of Jacob’s unexpected spiritual revelation that night in Beth-El.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 65-67. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 109, Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 409)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
VaYeitzei: Prayer Before Sleep
Leaving Beersheba at his father’s command, Jacob spent the night in Bethel. There, before laying down to sleep on the ground, he prayed to God.
“He entreated at the place and stayed overnight, for it suddenly became night.” (Gen. 28:11)
The Sages taught that Jacob established the third prayer of the day — Ma’ariv, the evening service. While less obligatory than the morning and afternoon services, Ma’ariv has its own spiritual benefits. The Talmudic sage Abba Benjamin testified that he took great pains every day of his life to recite Ma’ariv before going to sleep (Berachot 5b). What is so special about the evening prayer?
Refining the Desires and Imagination
While we sleep, our cognitive and rational functions cease, and our involuntary bodily processes take over. Only our powers of imagination remain active, guiding our dreams as we sleep. Without the control and regulation of our intellectual faculties, a measure of impurity descends on the body in the night. We remove this impurity by washing our hands when we wake up in the morning.
Holy individuals may experience sublime visions in their sleep, like Jacob who dreamt of angels ascending and descending a heaven-bound ladder as he slept in Bethel. However, only the soul experiences these visions. The body is detached from the soul during sleep, and is not influenced by the soul’s uplifting experiences.
We have two tools for spiritual growth: Torah study and prayer. Abba Benjamin’s testimony helps clarify how each tool ennobles a different aspect of the human soul.
When we study Torah, we refine and elevate our powers of intellect. The function of prayer, on the other hand, is to uplift our faculty of ratzon. Through prayer and meditation, we refine our will and powers of imagination. As we express our inner needs and aspirations in prayer, our desires are elevated to holier, more spiritual goals.
Our imaginative faculties are closer to our physical side than the intellect. Thus they function even as we sleep, in our dreams. Since it is through prayer that we can most effectively direct those faculties still active during sleep, it is logical that prayer before sleep will have the strongest impact on this aspect of life. For this reason, Abba Benjamin stressed the importance of his nighttime prayer.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 19)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
November 9th, 2010
And He Left
Va-yetzei Yaakov me B’er Shava va-yei-lekh Haran-ah
And Jacob left from Beer Sheva and went toward Haran. [in trope] — Gen. 28:10
When it is mentioned first
leaving from a place
the place is diminished by the leaving
or a big person
leaves a big space behind her
Here it’s him
Jacob our ancestor
notice also that he is leaving specifically Beer Sheva
and he is going towards
in the direction of
The hei at the end Haran-ah
the hei of direction.
He knows where he is leaving from
not sure where he is going to –
he has a direction but not exactly
You’re ________ years old
and you surely know what it’s like
to leave somewhere
and not know exactly where
you are going,
only that the place from where you have come –
you must leave.
Va-yetzei Yaakov me B’er Shava va-yei-lekh Haran-ah
And Jacob left from Beer Sheva and went toward Haran. [in trope]– Gen. 28:10
not a destination exactly
but a towards.
O holy Shabbes Inspiration Va-Yetzei
Maqam Ajam begins with a Ajam trichord on the first note and another Ajam trichord on the 5th note (the dominant), so for example: On B flat
B flat C D E flat F G A B flat
Every Shabbat is associated with a musical figure called a *maqam, Arabic cognate to Hebrew maqom, Place.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Steadiness within Turbulence
Rav DovBer Pinson
This week’s Torah reading opens with the words “And Yaakov/ Jacob went out from Beer’sheva, and he went toward Haran. And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set…and he lay down in that place… and he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and the angels…were ascending and descending… and behold Hashem was standing above it . . .(upon awakening) he said, “Indeed, the Divine is in this place, and I did not know.” (28:10-16)
The journey begins with Yaakov’s leaving. Up until this moment in Yaakov’s life, he is living with his parents. In this life he is ‘a man of the tent’, secluded and protected from the harsh realities of life.
He leaves the town of Beer’sheva, which literally translates as the “well of satisfaction.” In doing so, he left the protection of his parents’ home, which was his spiritual comfort zone, and journeys to the city of Haran, which can be translated as a place of ‘deceit and corruption’.
Essentially, Yaakov is going away from a place of spiritual elevation and safety, and moving into an unknown, and perhaps even debased, place.
The first place he encounters on his journey from Beer’sheva to Haran, is called “the place.” It is an ambiguous, uncertain and undefined place, and it is there that he experiences nightfall, seemingly all of a sudden.
His sunny days are behind him, as it were, he is entering a reality where the sun has set. He is scared and feels vulnerable, and lacks any vision to move along further on his journey. Therefore, he lies down to sleep.
He is in an unnamed and unmarked location, darkness has descended, and in the midst of the darkness he has a dream. In the dream he envisions angels ascending and descending. And then he beholds Hashem, standing above. The word used in the verse is ‘nitzav’ – which can be ‘above’ – or ‘steady’.
When he awakens, the sun rises and he experiences clarity of vision. Yaakov then declares, “Indeed, the Divine is in this place, and I did not know.”
Angels are conduits of energy. The ascent and descent of the angels represents movement, both upwards and downwards. At first he sees in his dream the ups and downs of life, the ‘content’ of life, what life presents to him. Then he beholds Hashem – standing steady through it all.
When he awakens he realizes that Hashem is “in this place” right at this very moment. Hashem’s presence is in the stillness of life, the ‘context’ of life, the backdrop to all the ups and downs.
Just as Hashem is within all moments of clarity, spiritual satisfaction and redemption, likewise, Hashem is present within the moments of apparent ambiguity, spiritual turbulence and exile. In day and in night, in clarity and in ambiguity, Hashem is both steady and present.
What hindered his perception of this truth, was his ‘I’/his ego, which dissolved in his dream state. “Indeed”, he says, “Hashem is in this place but I did not know”, my ‘I’ did not allow me to know this truth.
This transformative awareness is what gives Yaakov the strength and stamina to journey forward.
The Energy of the Week:
Steadiness within Turbulence
The energy this week is of Hashem’s steadying and constant presence throughout all the upward and downward movements of life.
Sometimes in our lives we build up the courage to move forward, oftentimes we are forcibly moved out of our present reality into a new story. The leaving of our comfort zone is unbelievably difficult yet we bravely step forwards.
We begin on a high of determination, and quickly bump into darkness and uncertainty. The initial excitement and adrenaline rush of the journey quickly drains when we encounter ambiguity, loneliness and other obstacles we had not anticipated.
The most devastating feeling in times of challenge is a sense of feeling empty, alone and alienated. We feel unmoored and struggle to find a foothold.
The revelation of Yaakov’s dream is the deep realization of Hashem’s constancy throughout. Hashem is a steady and constant presence, throughout the roughest parts of our journey and in the enlightenment as well.
This week through the Torah reading we receive the strength and stamina to continue onward in our journey through life.
We move forward in the knowledge that Hashem stands above and through every occurrence and movement.
In the greatest turbulence there is a place of stillness and steadiness, and even in the darkest of moments, we are never, ever alone.
From Reb Sholom Brodt
Our parsha begins with the story of Yaakov Avinu’s departure from Eretz Yisrael and journey into the dark exile of Charan. Verse 10: “Yaakov left Beer Sheva and went toward Charan.” He came upon ‘the place’ – and he slept there. But first he took some of the stones of that place, and arranged them around his head and lay down [to sleep] in that place and spent the night there because the sun had set.
He dreamt and saw a ladder fixed upon the earth reaching into the heavens. Divine angels were ascending and descending on it, “And behold Ad-noy stood above it, and said, “I am Ad-noy, G-d of Avraham, your father, and G-d of Yitzchok. The land upon which you are lying, I will give to you and to your descendants.” Hashem promised Yaakov that his family will grow and be numerous as the dust of the earth… and that He will guard him wherever he goes and will eventually bring him back to Eretz Yisrael.
When Yaakov awoke he said, “Indeed, Ad-noy is in this place, and I did not know it … How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of Elokim, and this is the gateway of heaven.” Yaakov rose early in the morning and took the stone that he had placed at his head; and he set it as a monument, and poured oil on its top. He named that place Beis Eil, but Luz was the original name of the city.
Yaakov made a vow, saying, “If El-him will be with me, …. and Ad-noy will be my G-d; … this stone which I have set [as] a monument will become a House of G-d, and of all that You give, I will surely give a tenth to You.”
Reb Levi Yitzchak explains that though on Channukah we celebrate the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days, the name of the holiday is Chanukah, which means dedication. The Word Chanukah is derived from the word ‘chinuch’- commonly translated as education. However the deeper concept of ‘chinuch’ is the preparation of ‘vessels’ with which to receive the holiness that Hashem wants to vest therein. We educate our children in the performance of mitzvot so that they should have the vessels for receiving the indwelling of holiness [of the Shechinah] as adults. This is the meaning of ‘chinuch’.
[In the text of the teaching there is no explanation offered as to why Reb Levi Yitzchak begins with explaining the meaning of ‘chinuch’ and the name of the holiday ‘Chanukah’. He just starts with this and then goes directly into his lesson on the passage. My understanding at the moment is that since he will be explaining much of the passage as Yaakov Avinu’s meditation, therefore he first explains meditation as a ‘chinuch’- educational process; in meditation one readies oneself to receive. Thus Reb Levi Yitzchak’s teaching implies that before Yaakov Avinu actually dreamt his awesome dream, he first meditated. Reb Levi Yitzchak says that any thing, any vessel that is to become a place for the indwelling of supernal holiness requires that it be properly prepared. Yaakov needed to be ready to receive the awesome prophetic dream he was about to have. His meditations readied him to receive the ‘Shechinah’. The ‘journey’ of this meditation is alluded to in the opening verse of the parsha: “And Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran.” [28:10] Be’er Sheva is in Eretz Yisrael, while Charan is outside the holy land of Israel. Thus Reb Levi Yitzchak explains the two locations mentioned in this verse as two major points in Yaakov Avinu’s meditation.]
The Be’er Sheva meditation: Yaakov Avinu, is meditating on the Supernal Unity and the original thought of creation, he realizes that the foundational purpose of all the worlds was that Knesses Yisrael, the community of souls of Israel, would bring about the perfect alignment and unification of this world with all supernal worlds and illuminations emanating from the supernal realms, such that Hashem’s Oneness would be fully revealed in all worlds. He realized that it would be his task to build the family of the “twelve tribes of Hashem” which would grow to be the 600,000 souls of Israel, which all together, these souls would form the complete whole upright being that would live in perfect alignment with all the supernal realms and divine illuminations. This was the original thought in the creation of the first stone, the ‘even ha’shtiah’ the foundation stone of this world. Yaakov and the community of souls of Israel were to take this stone and bring it back to the Creator.
When Yaakov blessed his son Yosef, he called him “the shepherd [the provider], the stone of Israel.” (49:24) In Zecharia 4:7, the People of Yisrael are called the ‘top stone’. Rashi explains that the Hebrew word “even” (with the ‘e’ sounding like the ‘e’ in enter), which is spelled ‘aleph, bet, nun’ makes for ‘av’ and ‘ben’ – father and son. The ‘stone of Israel’ represents the unification of Hashem with His children, the Community of Souls of Israel, through whom this world will be perfectly united and aligned with all supernal realms and divine illuminations.
Yaakov rested his head upon this stone. This alludes to Yaakov meditating upon this supernal primal stone and bringing about its intended manifestation- the union of all worlds with Hashem, from the highest to the lowest, which is this world that we live in. This beautiful relationship that his family and children would build is what he realized in his meditation in “Beer Sheva”.
The Charan mediataion: But then he went to Charan – to the place of anger, the dark places of this world and he saw that there would be terrible strife and destruction coming over his descendants, ‘chas v’shalom’. This pained him immensely. He sensed not only the pain of his children; he also sensed the great pain of the Shechinah; that the Shechinah would also be exiled. The sun had set; it was dark now. In the midst of his meditation his bonding with Hashem was interrupted by the pain he foresaw. So he took “of the stones of that place and arranged them around his head.” The stones (plural) represent the destruction and separation that he encountered. He placed them around his head. He meditated and strengthened his thoughts to go beyond the destruction, for he realized that the suffering, destruction and exile would have far reaching effects beyond this lowly world; this would affect all supernal realms as well.
From Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Struggling with God, and with Obscurity
One of the siblings says, “A God-struggle have I struggled, and indeed I have prevailed.” And a new name emerges from the struggle.
Sounds familiar, no? This must be the Godwrestle that Jacob undertakes the night before he is to meet his estranged older brother Esau, which results in his “prevailing” and being renamed Yisrael, Godwrestler (Gen 32: 25-33).
It is the God-struggle (naftulai elohim) that Rachel struggles, one of a number of struggles between her and her older sister Leah over their love for Jacob and their desire to bear him children (Gen. 30: 8). Out of it, through her servant-woman Bilhah, she “bears” a child and names him Naftali, My Struggle.
Most English translations for this passage refuse to translate the word “elohim” as God, and instead say “fateful” or “fine” or some similar word of superlative tone – but not “God.” And most commentators ignore the striking resemblances between this passage and the one about Jacob’s Godwrestle.
Why? Is it because until our generation, Torah commentators could not absorb the notion that a woman might have a God-struggle? Or that the struggle over birth-order between sisters was as important as that same struggle between brothers? Or that giving birth itself was as crucial to the universe as the struggle over property and other blessings? Or that this sisterly Godstruggle came before, and perhaps became the model for, the brotherly one?
These possibilities, which they may have rejected, we can embrace.
And once we see the birthings by these sisters and their surrogate-mothers as worthy of being called God-struggles, we can ask a broader question: What does it mean to give birth to Seeing (Reuven), Hearing (Shimon), Connecting (Levi), Thanking (Yehuda), Justice (Dan), Struggle (Naftali), Good Fortune (Gad), Happiness (Asher), Recompense (Issachar), Princeliness (Zevulun), Justice yet again (Dina) – justice redoubled, Dan and Dina, like Tzedek Tzedek – may it increase (Yosef)?
And finally, the birthing later, in suffering and sadness as Mother Rachel died, of the one she called “Child of my Affliction” (Ben-Oni), only to have his father rename him Child of the Right Hand (Binyamin).
In biblical tradition, 12 brothers who live into adulthood and themselves have children give collective birth to a “nation.” So we may add the question, what does it mean that this nation, which became known as the Godwrestling folk, could be completed only in sorrow over the birth of the twelfth-born son?
When the biblical mind-set, arising out of a patriarchal society, explored the creativity of women, it focused on the creative act of giving birth – even birthing that ends in the mother’s death. But we do not need to be so constricted in our understanding.
By focusing on the meanings of these children’s names, meanings infused with the spiritual searches (“God-struggles”) of their mothers, we can see and hear and deeply know how women can give birth to happiness, to thankfulness, to justice redoubled, even to affliction – and all the other qualities that make up a living, breathing community.
Of course, not women only. The point of these creative acts and the naming of boy-children with these qualities is that men as well as women can embody them.
But we live in cultures still struggling to give a new birth to ourselves from the narrowness (meitzrayyim) of images of God as masculine. We live in societies still struggling to emerge from the constrictions in which women rarely had power and even more rarely could exercise it in a nurturing mode.
We live in a world in which we call the Earth “Mother” and then proceed to rape her, killing thousands of her species and shattering the patterns of her climate in which we humans were ourselves given birth.
Mother Rachel is dying before our eyes, and all we can do is reject the truth of a woeful planet, the “Child of My Affliction” she sees and names – and give a wishful, wistful name to the survivors. Held close at our “right hands”? Only when we act to make it true.
So in our own generation, we must continue to lift up the ancient texts and the contemporary actions of women who enter whole-souled and whole-bodied into God-struggles. We must be clear that these struggles are indeed not merely “fateful” or “fine” but imbued with all the awe and sacredness that comes from embracing and transforming God. We are not entitled to announce that we have “prevailed” in the great feminist struggles to nurture both women and men, the struggles that Emma Goldman and Bella Abzug, Henrietta Szold and Rachel Carson, Mairead Corrigan and Aung San Suu Kyi, still call us to.
So the passage of “naftulai elohim,” precisely in its obscurity, precisely through its mistranslations, calls us to notice. To see, to hear, to connect. Above all, to redouble our work to make justice.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Vayetse
December 3, 2011 – 7 Kislev 5772
By: Rabbi Ed Feinstein,
Lecturer in Rabbinics
The Spirituality of Becoming
Torah Reading: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Haftarah Reading: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10
He is our first forefather, the progenitor of the Covenant, and yet we do not call ourselves “Bnai Avraham”, the children of Abraham. We invoke the memory of the Akeda when we beg God’s forgiveness, but we do not call ourselves “Bnai Yitzchak”, the children of Isaac. We are “Bnai Yisrael”, the children of Israel, the descendants of Jacob. Jacob? Why Jacob? Of the three, Jacob is our least likely spiritual ancestor. He is manipulative, conniving, and entirely amoral. He exploits his brother’s weakness to purloin his birthright. He uses his father’s blindness to steal his blessing. Having succeeded in shattering the family, he attempts to twist the arm of God: “Jacob made a vow, saying: ‘If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house — the Lord shall be my God…I will set aside a tithe for You.” (Genesis 28: 20-22) What sort of spiritual hero is this?
How poorly these Jacob stories compared with the epic heroes of other traditions. Elsewhere we read of the spiritual hero born of immaculate conception and living a life perfect and untouched by sin. His every word measured and every gesture considered, his life from beginning to end is a masterwork of moral wisdom. Or we read of a hero who begins mortal, even sinful, but through grace or will, finds his way to a state of perfect wisdom, perfect action, perfect peace, returning to our world only to bring others along the path toward perfection.
Jacob is a different kind of spiritual hero. He is not born whole or good. He is not born with a divine character. Nor does he ever achieve a perfection of character or spirit. Jacob is not a hero because of what he is. He is a hero because of what he is becoming. The Jacob narratives chronicle the growth of a soul, the development of a mensch. They portray a process of learning, of change, of struggle, of defeat and renewal, of death and rebirth. This dynamic is the power of the narrative. And in this process, the hand of God is revealed. Like his dream, Jacob’s life is a “ladder, set on the ground, with its top reaching into the sky, and the angels of God going up and down on it.”
Elsewhere, we read of heroes battling demons and dragons and devils in mythical lands, storming the heavens to steal the secrets of the cosmos. Again, Jacob is a different kind of hero. What is the setting of Jacob’s struggle? A place far more dangerous: The family. Jacob will be hunted by his brother, deceived by his uncle, manipulated by his wives, and finally devastated by the murderous jealousy of his sons. In each encounter, Jacob will be defeated. But each defeat deepens him, bringing him closer to wholeness, to wisdom and opens him to love.
The Jacob narratives hold out the promise that any life, any soul, any character can be rescued, elevated, purified, ennobled, saved. These stories reflect a spirituality of journey. God is not found only at the journey’s end, but in each step, especially the painful and fearful steps.
Spiritual perfection is not a quality one is born to, nor an awakening at the end of arduous meditation. Rather, each step has its own revelation. To open oneself to the love of a partner. To make peace with a brother. To mourn and then to rise and live again. God is present in each step, each choice, each moment. “Remember,” God assures Jacob as he begins his journey, “I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15)
In all your suffering and struggle, God promises: Remember, I’m not finished with you.
From The American Jewish World Service
> Dvar Tzedek > 5772 > Vayetze
Indigenous Ancestry: The Sacredness of Above and Below
In the daily Amidah prayer we address God as Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzchak vE’lohei Ya’akov.1 Many have suggested that the repetition of the word Elohim in relation to each patriarch indicates that each one had a unique understanding of and relationship to God. Today too, our individual and collective conceptions of God are vital and determining. Our ideas about God influence our relationships with self and other, male and female, heaven and earth—and can have a direct impact on our activism.
At the beginning of Parshat Vayetze, the third patriarch, Jacob, flees from home and his personal relationship with God begins to unfold. En route, Jacob stops at an outdoor, natural setting that the text repeatedly calls makom—a place.2 In this makom, Jacob creates a shelter of stones and falls asleep. That night he has the famous revelation dream,3 in which he encounters God ‘poised over’4 him at the top of a ladder connecting heaven and earth. God assures Jacob that God will be with him always.
The language of the dream creates a binary between the earthly place where Jacob sleeps and the transcendent sphere where God is positioned. The contrast between earth and heaven develops as Jacob wakes from his dream while it is yet night. In a reverie, he exclaims:
How full of awe is this place!
This (zeh) is none other than the house of God
And this (zeh) is the gate of heaven.5
In a moment of profound understanding, Jacob affirms the presence of holiness in two different spheres: Zeh…v’zeh—this place down here is the house of God and this is heaven’s gate.
The midrash picks up on Jacob’s mirroring of earth and heaven and suggests that there is a Temple located in the heavens that sits directly above the Temple on earth.6 We need not read this midrash literally in order to appreciate its sublime understanding that the same God that illuminates the heavens radiates through the physicality of the land.
This idea is amplified in the text as Jacob assembles “stones” (plural) to create a headrest, and then the following morning, finds a “stone” (singular) beneath his head.7 A Talmudic explanation helps resolve this shift from the plural to the singular by suggesting that all the stones clamored to touch Jacob’s head, but the struggle subsided during the night as they melded into one.8 Jacob’s recognition of Godliness below as well as above is reflected in the amalgam of stone. The single stone on earth mirrors the single Deity of the heavens; the sacredness that inheres above and below is one.
We inherit from Jacob a dual recognition of the sacred above and below. However, for thousands of years, much of Judaism has focused on the image of God on high—a God of shamayim (heaven); a God we look ‘up’ to. This focus on a spiritualized God, located beyond earth, is symbolic of our human striving to transcend matter, to rise above the corporeal restraints of experience. In failing to honor equally the two aspects of Jacob’s vision, we deny the fullness of our ancient heritage.9
But there are cultures today that still retain a complex understanding of the sacred link between heaven and earth. Consider indigenous peoples living in the Amazon region such as the Tageri of Equador, the Yanomani of Brazil and Venezuala, or the Waura of Brazil.10 Their belief systems affirm the sanctity and Divinity of earth and nature, and their religion and livelihood—which they get from the land—are intertwined.11
Unfortunately, others haven’t respected this delicate balance. Communities in this resource-rich region have to struggle to protect their land from industrial development. Multi-national companies and their own governments occupy indigenous lands to obtain oil and timber, minerals and water. The construction of megaprojects destroys their livelihoods as well as the mekomot—places—that they deem to be sacred. Having been self-sufficient for centuries, many of these communities now face eviction, poverty and starvation.
While the act of destroying the Amazon is not ours directly, the responsibility for this tragedy is on us all. Our disconnection from Jacob’s “God below” has distanced so many of us from a sacred connection to the earth—so much so that we don’t protest when holy ground is callously destroyed. When we don’t speak up, we are complicit in harming the earth and those peoples who more directly depend on it. If we can reclaim Jacob’s sense of the sacred in our theology, we may feel an imperative to protect the earth, and those cultures deeply connected to it, in our activism.
Jacob reminds us of these dual aspects to God’s Divinity: God is located in an ethereal heavenly sphere and also in the rootedness of earth, stone and matter. In returning to the theology of Jacob, our spirituality can be enriched and our activism enhanced as we take action to ensure that all peoples retain their dignified relationships with the Divinity of heaven and sacred ground.
1 Many modern renderings include the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah as well.
2 Genesis 28:11.
3 Rodger Kamenetz refers to Jacob’s dream as having the quality of ‘revelation.’ Rodger Kamenetz, The History of Last Night’s Dream: Discovering the Hidden Path to the Soul (New York: Harper One, 2007) 86.
4 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004) 149.
5 Genesis 28:17.
6 Bereshit Rabbah 69:7.
7 Genesis 28:18.
8 Chullin 91b.
9 The importance of a theology that includes a God of the heights and the depths is expounded upon by Thomas Moore. Thomas Moore, The Soul’s Religion: Cultivating a Profoundly Spiritual Way of Life (Harper Collins e Books, 2009).
10 Rhett A. Butler, “People in the Amazon Rainforest,” Mongabay.com. http://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/amazon_people.html
11 Sandhya Gupta, Gitta Zomorodi, Angela Martinez, Sarah Gunther, Jaron Vogelsang and Diego Merino, Promoting Natural Resource Rights: Laying the Groundwork for Sustainable Community-Led Development. http://ajws.org/who_we_are/publications/strategy_papers/0711_promoting_natural_resource.pdf
Torah Reading for Week of November 18-24, 2012
“A mandrake by any other name…”
By Rabbi Lori Schneide Shapiro, ‘10
Love is our greatest life journey. Our love for ourselves requires that we integrate all of the attributes of our being into a whole. Our love for our life-partner challenges us to transcend our own identities. Our love for our children teaches us to go beyond our own selfish desires. And the Ancient-Near-Eastern Israelite concept of love through G-d is perhaps the most mysterious and transcendent love of all.
The novella of Jacob and his sons contains some of the greatest, most complicated love stories of all time — there are multiple wives, tribes of sons, concubines, maidservants, extra-marital affairs and sibling rivalries. There are lustful romances, revenges, temptations, illicit affairs, dissemblings, betrayals and soul-mates. Looming over all of these refractions of desire, like a magnet — a hidden force, and driving all of these stories from the ancient scribe, is the force of human’s desire to know love at its most pure. Perhaps, this quest is the greatest inspiration for our departures, journeys and wanderings.
The symbol of love in this week’s parsha is most vividly portrayed by a coveted flower. Genesis 30:14 begins the story of the Dudaim, (or, “mandrakes” as Ramban clarifies): “Reuven went out in the days of the wheat harvest and returned with some mandrakes from the field.” As we know, the wheat harvest is also the time that will later become Shavuot, the holiday of revelation, when a collective experience of theophany reveals the hidden truth of the Israelite G-d. After Reuven gives the mandrakes to his mother, Leah, protestations arise from Rachel: “Please give me some of your son’s dudaim!” Leah’s response expresses her fatigue towards her sister’s portion: “Was your taking my husband insignificant? And now, to take even my son’s dudaim!” It is here that Rachel brokers a trade — Reuven’s dudaim for a night with Jacob.
Why are these mandrakes so coveted? Mandrakes, or Mandragora officinarum, grow wildly in fields. They are known for their medicinal use in the ancient world. But perhaps, more curiously, it is their root structure that has captured the Torah scribe’s imagination. For the mandrake, at its root, resembles two human forms, back to back. It is from their physical form, coupled with their healing properties, that establishes the mandrake as an ancient aphrodisiac. Additionally, the Hebrew word Dudaim resembles the Hebrew for Dodim, or lovers. Rachel and Leah’s exchange is, at face value, a commercial transaction – one Dood for one Dodah. However, the symbolic message is clear: both Leah and Rachel desire intimacy with Jacob, and long for the spiritual fruits of this union — children.
And yet, is there more to this exchange than just a routine love triangle? There are many such geometric relationships in this week’s Torah portion — Laban with Jacob and the wives, Jacob with Laban and the flock, and, always, for Jacob, the shadow of his brother Esau. And now — Leah and Rachel. What are we to make of these inversive relationships?
Perhaps the mandrake is more than a mandrake. According to the Ramban, “Dudaim are plants that increase a man’s desire for women, and the word dudaim is derived from the expression “A time of love” (Ezekiel 16:8). Perhaps the mandrake, a known aphrodisiac, is just a catalyst for our characters who are truly desirous of a more ultimate knowledge — that of the deepest knowledge of love of all — the knowledge of the love of G-d.
Indeed, Rachel, Leah, Laban, Esau, Reuven, Jacob and his maidservants seem preoccupied by something driving their passions. Are they merely rivalrous and petty? Or, are they just the most raw, ancient examples of the extent to which the spiritual hunger can drive us? There is a great power to love. It inspires us to “go out” — to leave ourselves. Love elevates the average human’s being to the level of the poet, the shaman, the mystic. Love is the universal empowerment of all humans to know something greater than ourselves. And perhaps, it is this love that Torah is directing us towards.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, directs us towards a transcendent journey. In contrast to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, who was commanded Lech Lecha (Go Forth!), Jacob does not “go” on his journey — he “Goes Out” — to seek himself, his wholeness, his love story, his descendents, and ultimately, the Israelite destiny.
Plato states in The Symposium: “So ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, seeking to make one of two, and to heal the state of man.”
In contrast, our ancient patriarch, Jacob, is a Jewish love warrior. His conquests — as individual, sibling, lover of many, and seeker — provides our template for the Jewish origin of love. As an individual, he seems, at first, more of a polyamorist than a Platonist in the subject of love. The web of his family system seems entangled in a collective love-healing, the seeds of which plant the future of the People of Israel — a people seeking to transcend Plato’s notion of love (that of an individual journey), and supplanting this Platonic origin of love with the example of Jacob — who, in his transformation, will become Israel. Jacob’s journey is that of one man going out to meet himself; and in the purest form of “Vayetze” — he achieves something much greater. Jacob’s “going out” — an individual journey of Identity and Self — ostensibly leads to the collective redemption of all of Israel.
Indeed, the descendents of Jacob, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, experience not a going out, but an Exodus: “Yetziat Mitzrayim”. In their Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites don’t just “go out,” but are “brought out,” collectively, in order to experience the greatest love of all: the love of G-d. A love that connects all of humanity, heals our wounds, and fills the brokenness within so that we can experience a world of Oneness, and ultimately, return to our state of connectivity. Plato’s symposium suggests that we seek to find our soul-mate to become whole again; but the ancient Israelite stories of Jacob remind us that it is not only our physical partner that we cleave to, but our Godly One. For, we are far more like the mandrake — interconnected through an unseen root system that awakens our desire for and our pursuit of Divine Love.
From Rav Kook
Vayeitzei: The Rivalry between Rachel and Leah
Jacob did not have an easy life. He loved Rachel, but was tricked into marrying her sister Leah. And when he finally married Rachel, his home was plagued with jealousy between the two sisters.
This strife was not limited to Jacob’s household. It continued on in future generations: in the struggle between Rachel’s son Joseph and Leah’s sons; and in the rivalry between Saul, descended from Rachel, and David, a descendant of Leah. Why did Jacob need to endure so many obstacles when setting up his family — complications that would have such a long-term impact on future generations of the Jewish people?
The Present versus the Future
We live in a divided reality. We continuously deliberate: how much should I live for the moment, and how much should I work for the future? We must constantly balance between the here-and-now and the yet-to-come. This dilemma exists on all levels of life: the individual, the family, the community, and the nation.
God’s original design for the world was that we should be able to taste the sweetness of the fruit even in the bark of the tree (Gen. 1:11). In other words, even during the intermediate stages, we should be able to sense and enjoy the final fruit. When the world is functioning properly, the present is revealed in all of its glory, and serves as a suitable guide to a loftier future. In such a perfect world, our current desires and wishes do not impinge upon our future aspirations.
But the physical universe is flawed. The earth failed to produce trees that taste like fruit. Our lives suffer from the constant conflict of the present versus the future, the temporal versus the eternal. As individuals and as a nation, we often need to disregard the sensibilities of the present, since they will not lead us to the destined path of the future.
Rachel and Leah
Jacob’s marriage to two sisters, and the ongoing rivalry between them, is a metaphor for this duality in our lives.
Like all things in our world, Jacob’s home suffered from a lack of clarity. Jacob should have been able to establish his family on the basis of an enlightened present, blessed with integrity and goodness. He should have been able to marry and set up his home without making complicated calculations with an eye to the future. The natural purity and simple emotions of his holy soul should have sufficed.
Rachel, whom Jacob immediately loved for the beautiful qualities of her soul, is a metaphor for the simple and natural love of the revealed present. Jacob felt that Rachel’s external beauty was also in harmony with the hidden realm of the future.
But God’s counsel decreed that the future destiny of the people of Israel belonged not to Rachel, but to Leah. This future was so profoundly hidden, that its current state – in Leah – was hidden from Jacob.
The concealed quality of Leah was embedded in the very foundations of the Jewish people. Because of Leah, we can raise our sights afar, skipping over the present circumstances, in order to aspire to a lofty future. Just as Jacob found himself unexpectedly wed to Leah, so too the path of the Jewish people throughout history does not always proceed in an orderly fashion. The future often projects its way into the present, so that the present time may be elevated and sanctified.
Two Kings and Two Messiahs
The rivalry between Rachel and Leah, the conflict between the beautiful present and the visionary future, also found expression in the monarchy of Israel. The temporary reign of Saul, descended from Rachel, struggled with the eternal dynasty of David, a descendent of Leah. Even in the Messianic Era, the divide between Rachel and Leah will continue, with two messianic leaders: the precursive redeemer, the Mashiach ben Joseph (from Rachel), and the final redeemer, the Mashiach ben David (from Leah).
Nonetheless, we aspire for the simpler state in which the present is enlightening and through its light the future acquires its greatness. For this reason, Rachel was always honored as Jacob’s primary wife. Even Leah’s descendants in Bethlehem conceded: “Like Rachel and Leah who both built the house of Israel” (Ruth 4:11), honoring Rachel before Leah.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, pp. 44-46)
From The Maqam Project
Reb Miles Krassen
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Destiny or Chance
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Jacob’s Ladder (5774/2013)
In the dream image of Jacob’s ladder, angelic messengers are coming down and going up. In Torah, characters sometimes interpret dreams metaphorically. Here, however, Yaakov gives no explicit interpretation of his dream. So the nature of the ladder is open to interpretation. Here are just a few representative interpretations from different eras in Jewish history.
From midrash (c. 500): (1) The gematriya of sulam, ladder, is the same as the gematriya of Sinai. The ladder represents the Torah coming from God to the world; the angels are Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam. (2) This is the ladder of exile of the Jewish people. All who climb it out of the land of Israel, will eventually come down again to their home.
From late medieval philosophy and mysticism (c. 1200): (1) The ladder is a bridge between body and soul. Our bodies are planted in the ground, but through intellect our souls reach for spiritual connection. (2) The gematriya of hasulam – the ladder — is the same as the gematriya of kol – voice — 136. When we speak our prayers we climb from our earth-bound existence to deeper states of consciousness.
From Chassidut (c. 1800): (1) Our soul has its roots in heaven and descends down the ladder, from its most subtle form as neshamah to its most embodied form as nefesh. (2) The angels going up and down on the ladder represent our consciousness. Sometimes our consciousness expands upwards and sometimes it contracts downwards, but we are always reaching towards God.
What does the image of a ladder reaching heavenward mean to you?
From Ziegler School of Religious Studies
Shabbat Parashat Vayetse
By: Reb Mimi Feigelson,
Masphiah Ruchanit and
Lecturer of Rabbinic Studies
I Don’t Have Time to Hurry
Torah Reading: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Haftarah Reading for Ashkenazim: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10
Haftarah Reading for Sephardim: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12
Our Torah portion is so full of “highlights” and stories that create “bestsellers” that the first verse of our portion, “And Ya’akov leaves Be’er Sheva, and goes to Charan” seems to get lost before you even know that it existed.
It is bound to a perplexing moment for the Piasetzna rebbe (Rabbi Klonimus Kalman Shapira of Piasetzna 1888-1943) when he reads “And Ya’akov awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Indeed God is here and I did not know!” (Breishit/Genesis 28:16). Perplexing not because of the fact that Ya’akov woke up from a dream in which God revealed Godself to him, but rather for the nature of his proclamation, when knowing the reason that led Ya’akov to the location of the dream in the first place!
When the Babylonian Talmud (Chulin 91b) comments on the opening verses of our Torah portion, “And Ya’akov leaves Be’er Sheva, and goes to Charan; and he encounters the place [Makome] and sleeps there…” it offers the following reading: “When Ya’akov reached Charan he said [to himself], ‘Shall I have passed through the place where my fathers prayed and not have prayed too?’ He immediately resolved to return, but no sooner had he thought of this than the earth contracted and he immediately “encounters the place [Makome].” Meaning to say, Ya’akov leaves Be’er Sheva and when he gets to the outskirts of Charan he realized that he was in such a rush to get to where he was going that there was something, or somewhere, along the way that he neglected…
The Talmud suggests, based on the repetition of the word “Makome” (the place) in our verse and in the verses that describe Mt. Moriah when Avraham and Yitzchak are on their way to “the binding” in Breishit/Genesis 22:3-4 the following narrative: upon arriving in Charan, Ya’akov realizes that in his haste he forgot to stop at Mt. Moriah, a place where God revealed Godself to Avraham and Yitzchak and that this desire to pray in that same location activates a quantum leap that parks him on Mt. Moriah! It is here that the sun sets and he falls asleep, only to have his magnificent dream.
It is for this reason that the Piasetzna rebbe is so perplexed, questioning, when teaching this Torah portion in 1930: “He knew that God revealed Godself to his forefathers on Mt. Moriah, that was the primary reason for wanting to return to Mt. Moriah (!) so how could Ya’akov wake up and say, “God is here and I did not know” when he went there knowing God was there?”
In a detailed process the Piasetzna rebbe provides a distinction between intellectual knowledge and intimate knowledge; between explicit and implicit knowledge. Ya’akov knew, intellectually, that Mt. Moriah was a divine location, a portal of revelation upon arriving there. But his deeper question that he had no answer to, until he dreamt his dream, was a question of relationship and intimacy. Ya’akov wondered, “I have book knowledge about Mt. Moriah, but will I merit to experience God here the way my father and grandfather did?”
For me, Ya’akov’s quest was one of gratitude and intimacy alike. A desire to experience God’s presence in the world, on the one hand, and a moment to express a prayer of gratitude, on the other hand. Gratitude for the life that he himself was living by virtue of the lives that his parents and grandparents lived, and paved the way for him to live.
In a year when this Torah portion of Vayetze, is connected in such proximity to Thanksgiving day, here in the United States, I feel that we must also pause and return to the many moments and places and opportunities of gratitude that we may have passed by this year, as our Patriarch Ya’akov did, in his haste to get to Charan, as we may have done in our haste to achieve the goals we set out for ourselves.
It is in moments like these that I hear my dear and precious soul-brother, Rabbi David Zeller, of-blessed-memory, sing “I don’t have time to hurry, I don’t have time to pass things by…” quoting his first wife, Elana, while she battled cancer many years ago. What wisdom to know to pause in a time that you may feel that your time is running out! It is so counter intuitive to slow down when you feel you are being drawn into the “quicksand of time” passing through your fingers.
It is for this reason that I pray that we find the many ways to share moments of gratitude and appreciation in a week leading us to Thanksgiving and the shabbat of Ya’akov’s journeying. I pray that we realize on the brink of “arriving,” all those people and situations that carry blessings for us while we are on the road of our life; the locations of God’s revelation, that beg of us to return to them in prayer and gratitude.
I pray we take the time that we think too often that we don’t have, to say “thank you” to those that in their lives enable us to live our lives.
Thank you, happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Love is not Enough
From Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer
How the Light Gets In
Ladder (a tiny Hasidic teaching on this week’s Torah portion)
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob goes forth from Beersheva. He lies down with his head on the stones of a particular place, and he dreams of a ladder planted in earth with its head in the heavens and angels flowing up and down.
(When he wakes, he says “God was in this place, and I — I did not know!” That’s one of my favorite verses of Torah. I love that sense of wonder.)
The Degel Machaneh Efraim — grandson of the Baal Shem Tov — teaches that this is a passage about expansive mind and contracted consciousness. The angels moving up and down the ladder are a representation of the natural ebb and flow of our lives as we move from big mind to small mind, from a God’s-eye view of the world to a limited human view and back again.
The thing is, our ascent and our descent are inevitably interconnected. Ascent leads to descent which leads to ascent again. When a tzaddik, a righteous person, falls from a high level (perhaps through losing sight of the big picture and getting mired in “small mind”), the experience of having-fallen gives rise to yearning which pulls him back up. Our low places spur us to climb.
I love this teaching about gadlut (expansive consciousness) and katnut (contracted consciousness) — that they are interrelated; that falling is precisely the first step in rising again. And I love the idea that it’s our distance from God, or our distance from expansive consciousness, which makes us yearn to erase that distance and be our best selves once again.
From Rabbi David Kasher
HOW TO READ THE TORAH – Parshat Vayeitzei
Are you ready for talking rocks?
If you’ve read the Torah before, you probably know that there’s a story – right at the beginning – with a talking snake. Maybe you’ve even come across the story – later on, in the book of Numbers – with a talking donkey. So you’re used to reading some weird, supernatural stuff.
But this week, things get close to absurd when we run into a bunch of rocks – that’s right, inanimate stones on the ground – having a conversation with one another.
Now this isn’t in the Torah itself. But it appears in the famous commentary of Rashi, and he’s citing a passage in the Talmud. So it’s classic Jewish literature, and it forces us to ask one of the central questions in Biblical interpretation: Are we really supposed to believe this stuff??
Let’s set the stage first. Jacob is fleeing from home, after having tricked his father into giving him his brother’s blessing, and sent that brother into a homicidal rage. Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, has sent him to Haran to stay with his uncle for a while. But on the way there, he stops for the night to sleep, and has his famous dream with the ladder that stretches up to heaven.
Just as he gets ready to go to sleep, we read that:
…he took from the stones of the place, and put them around his head, and he lay down in the place. (Gen. 28:11)
Ok. Minor detail. He used some rocks for a pillow. Doesn’t sound that comfortable, but that’s fine. Then comes the dream: the ladder, angels going up and down, God standing above. Talk about weird, supernatural imagery! But it was a dream, after all, and then he wakes up and we read this. (Now see if you can spot something weird in this line):
Jacob got up in the morning and took the stone that he had placed around his head… (v. 18)
Wait! Did you catch that? The stone. He’s about to use that stone to make a monument there. But before he went to sleep it said he took stones, several, and placed them around his head. How did many stones become one? And how do you place one stone around your head anyway?
Now you might just say this is imprecise wording. Maybe Jacob took one of the stones he had used to sleep on. But Rashi won’t accept that kind of sloppy answer. So instead he says this:
“he took from the stones of the place, and put them around his head” – He placed them like a gutterpipe around his head, for he feared wild animals. They began to quarrel with one another. This one said, “Let the righteous one rest his head on me!” And that one would say, “He should rest it on me!” So suddenly, God turned them into one stone. And that is why it says (later), “and [Jacob] took the stone that he had placed around his head.”
Ohhhhhh! Well, that explains it! God took all the stones and fused them together to stop them from fighting! Now they can all have the great honor of having Jacob lie on them! Problem solved.
Problem solved, but more problems created! Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not God performs these kinds of tiny, makeshift miracles at all; at least we can imagine a theology that says God can do this sort of thing. But what about these rocks? Not only do they talk – they fight, they want things, they know who Jacob is! I mean, is this really my religion??
Enter Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague, the 16th-century Jewish philosopher known as the Maharal. He writes a running commentary on Rashi’s commentary – what they call a “supercommentary” – and his piece on this particular story is one of the most important explanations of how to read religious texts that I’ve ever come across.
He starts with the same basic difficulty that we had:
If you will ask, ‘What quarrel was there for stones, who have no consciousness?!’ This is what people ask. But these people do not know the intention of the sages [who wrote these texts].
Well, excuse me. So what is the intention of the sages, Rabbi Loew? He continues:
It is known that Jacob embodied oneness, which is why his children said to him [on his deathbed], “Just as there is only oneness in your heart, so there is only oneness in our hearts.” And this is what caused the fight amongst the rocks, because a totally elevated thing is one in every way, and multiplicity cannot interact with it at all – only unity.
This is why there was a “quarrel” – with each one saying, “let the righteous one lay his head on me….” [The rocks ], purely physical things, represented multiplicity. But God turned them into one…and then they could join with Jacob.
Whoa. This is all pretty abstract. But I think what he’s saying is that Jacob was so connected to God that his being manifested a spirit of oneness, a reflection of the oneness of God, and the underlying oneness of all being. And that meant that everything he came into contact with was brought under this spirit of oneness. In other words, the world became more godly as he moved through it. He was bringing the spirit of God into everything he touched.
Ok, that’s very beautiful. But the question remains. Did the rocks talk or not? Does he mean that this story is all just a metaphor for a spiritual experience, or does he mean that God actually united rocks for Jacob? Did this happen or not?
Well, the Maharal has a surprising answer to this question:
Whether you say that it actually happened that the rocks became one…or you say that in a vision the stone was one, as Jacob reached an elevated state, and then afterwards it returned to the way it was… makes no difference!
For natural things operate according to nature. But this event was not natural. For on that night, everything was operating above the natural order.
The purpose of this story is to communicate a profound spiritual truth. So we should be reading it for its spiritual content – not as a simple tale of talking rocks. And if your primary question, when you read it, is whether or not it “actually happened,” you are missing the point.
You want to say that God performed a real miracle, and the rocks actually transformed? Fine. You prefer to think of this all as the product of a vision, images from an altered state of consciousness. Fine. It doesn’t matter. It’s totally beside the point.
In fact, the Maharal seems frustrated to have to even explain this, which seems so obvious to him. And he closes with a bit of a tirade against people who want to take these kinds of religious stories literally:
I was forced to write these words, to enlighten these blind-hearted men, who take words that are the hearthstove of the world and turn them into words of void, as if they had no substance, and words of stupidity…
Each word in this image is a wondrous thing. And one should not think that the things I explained are the root and essence of the matter; they are but the beginning of understanding in the smallest way what is possible for beginners…
Further, you should know that if you search after the words of the Sages as if they were buried treasures, then you will find a storehouse of precious vessels that they stored away…
So is the Maharal saying that these stories are just symbolic, that they aren’t really true? No, just the opposite. They are truer than you think. Truer than they would be if you just read them simply, literally.
We tell stories like this to express things that are so profound that words cannot actually contain them. So the words we use are the best ones we have from our physical experience to point towards a spiritual level of reality.
So how do we read the most fantastic, far-out, supernatural images in our religious texts? Did these things happen or not? The Maharal was a deeply pious man. I think that he probably would have said that if you don’t believe they happened at all, you are a heretic. But if you believe they happened exactly as they are told, you are a fool.
Questions for Further Discussion:
1. How does the Maharal understand the story of the talking rocks? Do you think his interpretation is a good one?
2. Do you think that Rashi, or the rabbis of the Talmud would have agreed with the Maharal? Or do you think they meant these stories more literally?
3. How does Maharal’s approach inform the way we read religious texts in general? Do you find it helpful? If not, how do you deal with stories you find hard to take literally?
Out of the Depths
What did Jacob add to the Jewish experience? What is it that we find in him that we do not find to the same measure in Abraham and Isaac? Why is it his name – Jacob/Israel – that we carry in our identity? How was it that all his children stayed within the faith? Is there something of him in our spiritual DNA? There are many answers. I explore one here, and another next week in Vayishlach.
Jacob was the man whose deepest spiritual encounters happened when he was on a journey, alone and afraid at the dead of night, fleeing from one danger to another. In this week’s parsha, we see him fleeing from Esau and about to meet Laban, a man who would cause him great grief. In next week’s parsha we see him fleeing in the opposite direction, from Laban to Esau, a meeting that filled him with dread: he was “very afraid and distressed.” Jacob was supremely the lonely man of faith.
Yet it is precisely at these moments of maximal fear that he had spiritual experiences that have no parallel in the lives of either Abraham or Isaac – nor even Moses. In this week’s parsha he has a vision of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending, at the end of which he declares: “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it…How awesome is this place! This is nothing other than the house of God, and this, the gate of heaven!” (Gen. 28:16-17).
Next week, caught between his escape from Laban and his imminent encounter with Esau, he wrestles with a stranger – variously described as a man, an angel and God Himself – receives a new name, Israel, and says, naming the place of the encounter Peniel, “I have seen God face to face and my life was spared” (Gen. 32:31).
This was no small moment in the history of faith. We normally assume that the great spiritual encounters happen in the desert, or a wilderness, or a mountain top, in an ashram, a monastery, a retreat, a place where the soul is at rest, the body calm and the mind in a state of expectation. But that is not Jacob, nor is it the only or even the primary Jewish encounter. We know what it is to encounter God in fear and trembling. Through much – thankfully not all, but much – of Jewish history, our ancestors found God in dark nights and dangerous places. It is no accident that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik called his most famous essay, The Lonely Man of Faith, nor that Adin Steinsaltz called one of his books about Judaism, The Strife of the Spirit.
Sometimes it is when we feel most alone that we discover we are not alone. We can encounter God in the midst of fear or a sense of failure. I have done so at the very points when I felt most inadequate, overwhelmed, abandoned, looked down on by others, discarded and disdained. It was then that I felt the hand of God reaching out to save me the way a stranger did when I was on the point of drowning in an Italian sea on my honeymoon. That is the gift of Jacob/Israel, the man who found God in the heart of darkness.
Jacob was the first but not the last. Recall Moses in his moment of crisis, when he said the terrifying words, “If this is what You are going to do to me, please kill me now if I have found favour in Your sight, and let me not see my misery” (Num. 11:15). That is when God allowed Moses to see the effect of his spirit on seventy elders, one of the rare cases of a spiritual leader seeing the influence he has had on others in his lifetime.
It is when Elijah was weary to the point of asking to die that God sent him the great revelation at Mount Horeb: the whirlwind, the fire, the earthquake and the still, small voice (1 Kings 19). There was a time when Jeremiah felt so low that he said: “Cursed be the day on which I was born, let not the day on which my mother gave birth to me be blessed … Why did I come out from the womb, to see toil, and sorrow, and to end my days in shame?” (Jer. 20:14, 18). It was after this that he had his most glorious hope-filled prophecies of the return of Israel from exile, and of God’s everlasting love for His people, a nation that would live as long as the sun, the moon and the stars (Jer. 31).
Perhaps no one spoke more movingly about this condition than King David in his most agitated psalms. In psalm 69 he speaks as if he were drowning:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. (Ps. 69:2-3)
Then there is the line as famous to Christians as to Jews: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:2). And the equally famous, “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord” (Ps. 130:1).
This is the heritage of Jacob who discovered that you can find God, not just when you are peacefully tending your sheep, or joining others in prayer at the Temple or in the synagogue, but also when you are in danger, far from home, with peril in front of you and fear behind.
These two encounters, in this week’s parsha and the next, also provide us with powerful metaphors of the spiritual life. Sometimes we experience it as climbing a ladder, rung by rung. Each day, week, month or year, as we study and understand more, we come a little closer to heaven as we learn to stand above the fray, rise above our reactive emotions, and begin to sense the complexity of the human condition. That is faith as a ladder.
Then there is faith as a wrestling match, as we struggle with our doubts and hesitations, above all with the fear (it’s called the “impostor syndrome”) that we are not as big as people think we are or as God wants us to be. Out of such experiences we, like Jacob, can emerge limping. Yet it is out of such experiences that we too can discover that we have been wrestling with an angel who forces us to a strength we did not know we had.
The great musicians have the power to take pain and turn it into beauty. The spiritual experience is slightly different from the aesthetic one. What matters in spirituality is truth not beauty: existential truth as the almost-infinitesimal me meets the Infinite-Other and I find my place in the totality of things and a strength-not-my-own runs through me, lifting me to safety above the raging waters of the troubled soul.
That is the gift of Jacob, and this is his life-changing idea: that out of the depths we can reach the heights. The deepest crises of our lives can turn out to be the moments when we encounter the deepest truths and acquire our greatest strengths.
 I have told the story in the video Understanding Prayer: Thanking and Thinking. I also give an account of it in my book, Celebrating Life.
 There is, of course, the opposite phenomenon, of those who think they’ve outgrown Judaism, that they are bigger than the faith of their fathers. Sigmund Freud seems to have suffered from this condition.
 For me the supreme example is the Adagio of Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major op. 163, written just two months before the composer’s death.
by Rabbi David Kasher
Any great lover of the Torah must eventually confront the simple truth that certain parts of this book are just not that interesting. We have been trained to treat every word of this text as equally sacred and important, and so we are loathe to admit it when, suddenly mired in a section full of the most prosaic minutiae, our eyes begin glaze over and we wonder, “What is this doing here?!”
To wit, in the book of Exodus there are four complete parshot detailing the construction of the Tabernacle and describing the priestly garments. Four! And the second two mostly just repeat what’s in the first two. If reading the intricate details of how sockets go into planks weren’t challenging enough on its own, this stuff comes on the heels of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the most theologically exciting event in Jewish history. That’s quite an act to follow with an instruction manual.
Why would a book that contains some of the most epic stories in world literature also be interested in excruciating accounts of seemingly insignificant processes? Our commentators struggle to find answers, desperately seeking symbolic depth in the details.
This week’s parsha presents them with just such a challenge. The parsha is Vayeitzei, which takes us through the formative years in Jacob’s young life and his journey into adulthood. It is an action-packed narrative, with one gripping scene after another: we begin with the classic “Jacob’s Ladder” dream; then Jacob falls instantly in love with Rachel, only to get tricked into marrying her sister Leah; he ends up married to both of them and their maidservants, and has twelve children with them. There is no shortage of drama in this parsha.
At the end of all that, Jacob decides it is time to go home. Remember that all of this has happened during a 20-year journey that began when he fled from home in fear of his older brother, Esau, who was getting ready to kill him. So he goes to his father-in-law, Lavan, and asks for permission to leave. Jacob has been working for Lavan all these years, so it’s time to settle accounts. So they come up with a deal.
And this is where things get, well, a little less than riveting.
Jacob begins this elaborate explanation of how he’s going to get paid in animals. He’s going to take “every brown sheep and every spotted and speckled goat.” (Gen. 30:32) Okay, that’s intricate detail #1. We can handle that.
Then we hear about how Jacob moves through the flock and picks out all the streaked and spotted he-goats and the speckled and spotted she-goats and all the brown sheep. Okay, intricate detail #2, and it follows from #1, so it’s getting a little repetitive, but we’re hanging in there.
And then…things go into very strange territory. For we are thrown into a full description of the mating process that Jacob uses to breed the kinds of animals he wants. So buckle in, this gets pretty complicated:
Jacob them got fresh shoots of poplar, and of almond and plane, and peeled white stripes on them, laying bare the white of the shoots. The rods that he had peeled, he set up in front of the goats in the troughs, the water receptacles, that the goats came to drink from. Their mating occurred when they came to drink, and since the goats mated by the rods, the goats brought forth streaked, speckled and spotted young. But Jacob dealt separately with the sheep… (Gen. 30:37-40)
לז וַיִּקַּח-לוֹ יַעֲקֹב, מַקַּל לִבְנֶה לַח–וְלוּז וְעַרְמוֹן; וַיְפַצֵּל בָּהֵן, פְּצָלוֹת לְבָנוֹת–מַחְשֹׂף הַלָּבָן, אֲשֶׁר עַל-הַמַּקְלוֹת. לח וַיַּצֵּג, אֶת-הַמַּקְלוֹת אֲשֶׁר פִּצֵּל, בָּרְהָטִים, בְּשִׁקְתוֹת הַמָּיִם–אֲשֶׁר תָּבֹאןָ הַצֹּאן לִשְׁתּוֹת לְנֹכַח הַצֹּאן, וַיֵּחַמְנָה בְּבֹאָן לִשְׁתּוֹת. לט וַיֶּחֱמוּ הַצֹּאן, אֶל-הַמַּקְלוֹת; וַתֵּלַדְןָ הַצֹּאן, עֲקֻדִּים נְקֻדִּים וּטְלֻאִים. מ וְהַכְּשָׂבִים, הִפְרִיד יַעֲקֹב…
I’ll spare you the rest. But the Torah goes on to describe the process he uses with the sheep, and then another process detailing how he got his flock to be sturdier and Lavan’s to be weaker. And it all works, so that in the end Jacob gets very wealthy, with large flocks of various kinds.
Now, what in the world is going on here? Besides the fact that we have no idea what Jacob is doing, there’s the larger narrative question of why we have to get all the gory details about ancient animal husbandry. How could the Torah think this was a part of the story worth telling? What is the point of it all?
So we turn to our commentators, searching for answers.
There are, indeed, some explanations of the meaning of this scene scattered across the various Midrashim: This shows how much Jacob liked to work hard (Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer) Or, it shows how ready God was to do a miracle for him (Midrash Shir HaShirim 1:17) More mystically inclined texts, like the Zohar, (Vayeitzei 32) suggest that this section shows how Jacob had tapped into secret powers that gave him mastery over nature.
But none of these explanations really get to the question of the painstakingly detailed nature of the description. The Torah could have just told us Jacob did all this. Why did it have to take us through every step of the process?
Another way to think about the meaning of this scene is to pan out and see where it appears in the larger narrative. One thing we do know about this animal breeding passage is that it directly follows the long section detailing the birthing of Jacob’s own children. This seems like a significant parallel.
When we turn back and review the account of Jacob becoming a father of twelve, we begin to see that this was a period of Jacob’s life characterized by a total lack of control. Let’s take a look:
– First, the births themselves seem to come like rapid-fire, at an almost overwhelming pace. Leah starts off with four in a row: Reuven! Shimon! Levi! Judah! They all arrive in the space of five verses.
– Then, when Rachel is unable to have children, she complains to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” (30:1) He loses his temper and says, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you the fruit of the womb?!” It is an exasperated admission that he has no ultimate control over the reproductive process.
– Finally, we hear of Rachel and Leah bargaining over their rights to Jacob with the special aphrodisiacs found by Reuben. When they settle on an arrangement, independent of Jacob, Leah announces to him when he comes home, ”‘You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ And he lay with her that night.“ (30:16) So Jacob also seems to have little control over who he shares his bed with. (That, after all, has been true from his first night of marriage!)
With all that in mind, we arrive at our scene with the speckled and spotted goats. Is it possible, then, that as this chaotic period of birthing and mating in Jacob’s own life has come to a close, he turns to animal husbandry and finds there the control he lacked in his own “husbandry.” The strange science of manipulating animal births to produce the exact colors he desires must, on some level, serve to soothe the frazzled nerves he has after all the tumult and unpredictability in his own mating life.
If that is true, then what seemed like an overkill in details turns out to be exactly the point of the story. Jacob needed this very strict, mapped-out, plan of breeding to bring him back to a sense of control over the growth of his household.
And we, the readers, need to follow Jacob through this process, to feel him working hard to master his environment, in order to believe he is ready, at the end of the parsha, to go home and face his demons.
If that’s true, then this scene is not a tedious sidetrack from the main narrative; it is critical to movement of the narrative itself. It also means that what seems like a description of menial farm labor turns out to be a therapeutic journey into the depths of Jacob’s psyche – with all the intense drama of anxiety, sexuality, insecurity and confidence.
This approach may also help shed light on other “uninteresting” parts of the Torah. That is, whenever we encounter an exceedingly detail-heavy section of the text, we would do well to take a step back and wonder what might be prompting such an obsessive focus on the mundane.
Take, for example, those parshot from Exodus that methodically detail the construction of the Tabernacle. Not a few commentators have noted their juxtaposition with the narrative of the sin of the Golden Calf, and concluded that the Tabernacle was ordered in response to this calamity, as a mechanism for atoning for the sin. But even if we accept that interpretation, the question we had above remains: why do we need to hear about the measurement of planks and the number of sockets?
The great modern commentator, Aviva Zornberg, begins to suggest an answer in her essay on the subject, when she calls the Tabernacle (Mishkan): “A Therapeutic Project.” There she writes:
There is an intimate, repressed sense of the Mishkan’s function that has everything to do with the Golden Calf. Viewed psychoanalytically, the Golden Calf was a disaster that was always waiting to happen. The Mishkan comes to engage with a profound pathology that finally comes to crisis in the Golden Calf. (“Exodus: The Particulars of Rapture,” p. 320)
If the construction of the Tabernacle is an attempt to grapple with the “pathology” of boundary-breaking represented by the wild, ecstatic dancing around the Golden Calf, then it is not so surprising that the Children of Israel would need a quiet, precise, almost subdued kind of therapy, as a way of cooling down the fires of their sin. Like their father Jacob before them, they underwent a process of regaining control over their lives by slowly, patiently focusing on the tiniest details of the task in front of them.
We, the readers of the Torah, are also being asked in these moments to have patience as our ancestors move through the careful rituals they require to regain their sanity. It may not make for the most interesting reading, but when you love someone, you stick by them even when they are down.
When the “I” is Silent
This week’s parsha relates a powerful, primal vision of prayer: Jacob, alone and far from home, lies down for the night, with only stones for a pillow, and dreams of a ladder, with angels ascending and descending. This is the initial encounter with the “house of God” that would one day become the synagogue, the first dream of a “gate of heaven” that would allow access to a God that stands above, letting us know finally that “God is truly in this place.”
There is, though, one nuance in the text that is lost in translation, and it took the Hassidic masters to remind us of it. Hebrew verbs carry with them, in their declensions, an indication of their subject. Thus the word yadati means “I knew,” and lo yadati, “I did not know.” When Jacob wakes from his sleep, however, he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place ve’anokhi lo yadati.” Anokhi means “I,” which in this sentence is superfluous. To translate it literally we would have to say, “And I, I knew it not.” Why the double “I”?
To this, Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz (Panim Yafot) gave a magnificent answer. How, he asks, do we come to know that “God is in this place”? “By ve’anokhi lo yadati – not knowing the I.” We know God when we forget the self. We sense the “Thou” of the Divine Presence when we move beyond the “I” of egocentricity. Only when we stop thinking about ourselves do we become truly open to the world and the Creator. In this insight lies an answer to some of the great questions about prayer: What difference does it make? Does it really change God? Surely God does not change. Besides which, does not prayer contradict the most fundamental principle of faith, which is that we are called on to do God’s will rather than ask God to do ours? What really happens when we pray?
Prayer has two dimensions, one mysterious, the other not. There are simply too many cases of prayers being answered for us to deny that it makes a difference to our fate. It does. I once heard the following story. A man in a Nazi concentration camp lost the will to live – and in the death camps, if you lost the will to live, you died. That night he poured out his heart in prayer. The next morning, he was transferred to work in the camp kitchen. There he was able, when the guards were not looking, to steal some potato peelings. It was these peelings that kept him alive. I heard this story from his son.
Perhaps each of us has some such story. In times of crisis we cry out from the depths of our soul, and something happens. Sometimes we only realise it later, looking back. Prayer makes a difference to the world – but how it does so is mysterious.
There is, however, a second dimension which is non-mysterious. Less than prayer changes the world, it changes us. The Hebrew verb lehitpalel, meaning “to pray,” is reflexive, implying an action done to one- self. Literally, it means “to judge oneself.” It means, to escape from the prison of the self and see the world, including ourselves, from the outside. Prayer is where the relentless first person singular, the “I,” falls silent for a moment and we become aware that we are not the centre of the universe. There is a reality outside. That is a moment of transformation.
If we could only stop asking the question, “How does this affect me?” we would see that we are surrounded by miracles. There is the almost infinite complexity and beauty of the natural world. There is the divine word, our greatest legacy as Jews, the library of books we call the Bible. And there is the unparalleled drama, spreading over forty centuries, of the tragedies and triumphs that have befallen the Jewish people. Respectively, these represent the three dimensions of our knowledge of God: creation (God in nature), revelation (God in holy words) and redemption (God in history).
Sometimes it takes a great crisis to make us realise how self- centred we have been. The only question strong enough to endow existence with meaning is not, “What do I need from life?” but “What does life need from me?” That is the question we hear when we truly pray. More than an act of speaking, prayer is an act of listening – to what God wants from us, here, now. What we discover – if we are able to create that silence in the soul – is that we are not alone. We are here because someone, the One, wanted us to be, and He has set us a task only we can do. We emerge strengthened, transformed.
More than prayer changes God, it changes us. It lets us see, feel, know that “God is in this place.” How do we reach that awareness? By moving beyond the first person singular, so that for a moment, like Jacob, we can say, “I know not the I.” In the silence of the “I,” we meet the “Thou” of God.
From Reb Mimi Feigelson
TORAH OF THE FIRST-KISS / Rabbi Dr. Reb Mimi Feigelson
And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept
How many people do you know that “raise their voice and weep” after their first-kiss? What did you learn from your first-kiss with your Soul-Mate? What manifested from your lips and eyes after that first-kiss?
In this moment of infinite and ultimate revelation I believe Ya’akov is telling Rachel “I love you so much that I promise you that you will never cry alone!” I believe it was much more than the limited perspective of the midrash which teaches, that he cried because he saw they wouldn’t be buried together.
I believe Ya’kov “raised his voice and wept” to show Rachel, “I love you in this world, I love you in the world to come. I love your heart and faith. I love your devotion to your children unborn and unnamed. I love your belief in the power of prayer and the Torah-of-the-Tear. I love each and every tear that you shed. And I promise you, you will never cry alone!”
“So said God: *A voice is heard in Ramah*, lamentation, and bitter weeping, *Rachel weeping for her children*; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not.” (Yirmiyahu 31,14)
Ya’akov kisses Rachel for the first time, promising her: “I will witness and kiss each and every one of your tears. And I will cry with you for eternity, until that last of our children comes home.”
May we merit such love. May we live to see the end of their tears, the end of our tears.
Shabbat shalom and much love!
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