You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Vayeitzei.
Rabbi Mel Gottlieb
I hope you all had a joyous Thanksgiving filled with gratitude for all the gifts that you affirmed on this special day. In this week’s Parsha Vayetze the Torah teaches us some deep dynamics that fill Jacob’s Psyche and that are familiar to our experiences. Let me cite two of them:
In chapter 29 verse 11, we read that ‘Jacob kisses Rachel and weeps with emotion,’ for he saw that his soul mate would not come with him to the grave. (Rashi). What is kissing? Asks the Zohar,”The cleaving of Soul to Soul.” Indeed, Jacob’s life seems one long quest for the repose that was snatched away from him whenever he thought he had attained it. Lavan cheated him, Rachel eluded him on his wedding night, Joseph is taken from him; he has to leave the promised land in order to reunite with Joseph after years of separation and loss. In 47:9, he tells Pharaoh that his troubles had made him old, not his natural physical process of aging. So his kiss is filled with longing and the anguish of loss. Though Rachel is not buried with him (she dies and is buried in Bethlehem) our Sages teach that the depth of Rachel’s tears as well served to influence the Heavenly Court to bring the Jewish people home from exile and comforted the people along their way home. Her tears as a result of separation from Jacob were so powerful that they influenced the Heavenly court to promote the redemption. I have always felt the longing of Jacob, as all of us have had moments when our deepest desires are not fulfilled, and our hearts are broken, but we find acceptance and continue to benefit from that which remains with us.
A second poignant, insightful message is found in Chapter 29, verses 2-3. “He looked and there was a well in the field…and the stone was large on the mouth of the well, and the shepherds would roll the stone from the mouth of the well and water the sheep.” The Sfat Emet teaches that the field symbolizes, the environment that surrounds us and what is within this well is a life giving point that we must discover. And every human being is capable of discovering the life force (the Light within), the truth within ourselves, the truth of the infinite. But there are many inhibitions to self knowledge and our destiny (the stone was large). So we must gather all our faculties under the higher self and we will know what we have always known,(that our inner spark of G-d is within us) and now we can roll the stone, remove our material proclivities and confusion. Rolling away (‘Vayigal’) the stone, removing that which prevents us from growth (resistance) creates ‘revelation’ of truth,( ‘gilui’), and redemption (‘geulah”). I think this is a superb insight into the human condition; it reveals the insight that is necessary to remove that which inhibits growth, and the Jewish belief that the Light, the soul is always within, is always within our reach waiting to be revealed.
May the wisdom of our Torah’s depth continue to promote growth and the actualization of the vast, unique gifts that each of us possess created in G-d’s image. The FAITH that emerges from Torah study is a prerequisite for the hard work that we must do to remove fears and insecurities that do not allow us to move forward to our life’s destiny. May we all be successful and help each other with LOVE to support the life journey of our brothers and sisters and delight in their success.
Have a most sublime Shabbat filled with insight and growth from our profound Torah, surrounded by Angels of love and song,
From Rishe Groner
There is God in this place… and I didn’t know it
The book of Bereshis / Genesis that we are reading right now is a microcosm of every form of family tension that exists: sibling rivalry; parental expectation, projection, estrangement and alienation; jealousy; parenting conflicts; sister wives; infertility; surrogacy; and all their shadow sides that come along with it.
This week, we take our infertility stories of Sarah and Rivkah and raise them – this time, we’re dealing with not just a woman and her maidservant, like Sarah; or a wife and her husband, praying together, like Rivkah – but two sisters, both brought together and torn apart over their love for the same man, and their desire for the self-actualization that motherhood brings to women from ancient days to today.
This is a really tough topic for me to write about.
And yet, the things that are hardest to talk about are what we must discuss.
This is the equivalent of the Torah portion where I want to hide under the covers, in a cave until it’s over, because I just don’t want to think about it, talk about it, deal with it.
The very real, very relevant story of power, pain and pleasure experienced by the women who aren’t just ladies in a one-off story: they are the Matriarchs, they are the women who an entire people consider ourselves to be descended from today.
Our parsha this week begins and ends with a shrine: The first, that Yaakov builds on his way from his parents’ home to his uncle Lavan in Haran, the place where he is seeking refuge after his own tense brotherly encounter, receiving the firstborn blessing in stead of his older brother, Esav. He experiences a Divine vision: angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven; and dedicates the space to God, calling it “Beit El” – the House of God. The shrine that he creates, piling stones and pouring oil, becomes a microcosm for every sacred space built ever since, a place dedicated to being in touch with the Divine Presence. A place where we watch our energy rise and ascend, yet keep our feet planted on the ground – like the ladder, embedded in the earth.
The second shrine, at the end of the reading, describes Yaakov and his uncle Lavan – two not-such-besties, despite being family, who’ve weather the storm of a lot of mixed signals, messy communication, outright cheating, and desire to get the upper hand of the years. At this moment, as Yaakov departs Lavan’s household with his own household – four wives and a bunch of grandkids – he and Lavan finally agree to disagree and agree, creating their own pile of stones – gal – as witness – ed – to their pact, and so it was called Gilead.
Sacred spaces are the place where God is called in, where we take a moment to build something that is Divine and otherworldly, in the space we frequent all the time. Something as physical as earth and stone becomes a haven for the Divine presence, a space where we can take a moment to witness what is greater than the sum of our parts.
So how are these stories of sacred spaces, of monuments and shrines, the bookends to a story that is raw, real and heartrending: Of two sisters, married to the same man; one loved and one shunned; one infertile while the other births babies; and the two concubines, also rumored to be sisters, brought in as surrogates amidst the sisterly rivalry?
In Hebrew, the word for womb is ‘rechem’ – a word that, incidentally, shares the root for the word ‘compassion’. And in the Torah, when we describe conception and pregnancy and birth, we are told that someone – in this parsha, Rachel – is infertile, because “God had closed her womb”.
Another sacred space.
A place of life and death.
Of birth and renewal; of letting go and regenerating.
A space of sacred union, in a conscious relationship of loving partners; yet also a space of trauma and pain, in scenarios of non-consensual encounters, or unconscious awareness of who our partners truly are.
When Yaakov and Leah sleep together for the first time – he, believing she is his beloved Rachel; and Leah, grateful to be wanted yet aware she is not being fully seen – how conscious is this union? What is being created in that moment?
And with each child born to the ever-fertile yet unloved Leah, we hear Leah’s
own internal monologue through the names she gives her sons. “God has seen me and given me a son” – Reuven. “God has heard my affliction” – Shimon. Does her pain ever end? Six sons in, and she’s naming each one in the pain of being unloved, disregarded, and praying to be seen by her partner and loved by him.
Rachel, on the other hand, is wracked with sadness and pain over her own infertility. Like other barren women of the Bible, her husband’s love is nothing to her. She wants a child. The sacred space of her womb, the text tells us, is closed. Her tension with her sister over the use of mandrakes – a powerful native plant whose flowers are known to be an aphrodisiac, and roots contain powerful psychoactive properties – becomes a tension over Leah’s desire for the love potion that will cause her husband to finally give her that extra bit of care and tenderness; and Rachel’s desire for the health potion that will finally grant her fertility.
Caught between two sacred spaces. Two intentions. Two wombs, belong to sisters who originate from the same womb.
When the household of Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah leave their father Lavan’s house – along with their husband, Yaakov and all the children and cattle – Rachel complains of ‘female troubles’, as a ruse so her father fails to notice that she is sitting on the very items of his household shrine (known as teraphim, ancient oracles) that she had stolen. Her womb, always a shrine, now fully opened since the birth of her son Yosef, in contact with the sacred articles of her father’s shrine.
The Torah talks often of circumcision and its centrality in our tradition; and the rabbinic tradition, from the Midrash to recent Hasidic masters, spend much time contemplating the focus on the place of circumcision, the organ and its centrality in our tradition.
But this week, I want us to think about the womb.
The womb, a place of dark, mysterious depths.
A space of sacredness, creativity and miracles.
And also a space of pain, trauma and inherited wounds. A place that can represent unbound pleasure in connection, birth and creation; as well as neverending pain of abandonment, loneliness and loss.
Can we develop our understanding of this week’s Parsha and the homage to the womb, bookended by shrines, to begin to treat our own wombs, and the wombs of those around us, as the shrines that they are?
Giving love, attention and honor to the people who carry wombs – whether they are fertile or infertile; loved or unloved; processing complex emotions or barely paying attention.
And noticing how we create our sacred spaces, both within our bodies and outside of ourselves, to create homes that are intentional, conscious and with the presence of the Divine.
“There is God in this place – and I didn’t know,” says Yaakov, at his first shrine in Beit El.
Could it be that there is the Divine in this place, this place of dark mysterious depths – and for so long, as a society and culture, we haven’t known?
Can we move towards healing that on a collective level, and on an individual level?
Sister approaching sister; partner approaching partner; child approaching mother; mother approaching child. Noticing the wounds, sending compassion to the pain, exploring the ability for pleasure, and recognizing the miracle of this shrine to the Divine within the earthly body.
May we experience a Shabbat of healing, expansion, co-creation and exploration,
Diving into the darkness depths and creating spaces of home and holiness.
From My Jewish Learning
Parashat Vayetzei: Leah’s Hidden Blessing
Why does the Torah specifically mention the “weak eyes” of the matriarch Leah?
BY RABBI MENACHEM CREDITOR
When do you close your eyes while you’re awake? Birthday wishes, bubbling laughter, crying — moments of intensity in which we find ourselves tapping into invisible emotions. Closed eyes can enable us to see past the apparent and envision what could be.
My father once explained that the moon is considered new according to Jewish tradition when it is hidden from our eyes. Hence its Hebrew name, molad, which literally means “birth.” These notions of hiddenness and newness, of birth and imagination, are directly related to Parashat Vayetzei.
Our matriarch Leah is introduced in this portion as having “weak eyes,” while her sister Rachel is described as beautiful. (The Hebrew word for weak, rakkot, can also be translated as “soft.”) Why are Leah’s weak eyes specifically mentioned in the Torah?
In the Midrash, Rabbi Yochanan explained: What does rakkot mean? That her eyes had grown weak through weeping, for people used to say: “This was the arrangement; the elder daughter [Leah] is for the elder son [Esau], and the younger daughter [Rachel] for the younger son [Jacob].” And Leah used to weep and pray, “May it be Your will that I do not fall to the lot of that wicked man.”
The softness of Leah’s eyes — reminiscent of Isaac, whose eyes also grew dim with time — are due to her trying to create an alternative timeline, to see beyond a fate she wishes to avoid. So Leah closes her eyes and cries. And what does she see with her eyes closed? A different life than the one people have been telling her is coming.
Today, we are constantly bombarded by announcements of forthcoming doom and imminent utopia. Neither is quite right. The future is not that clear, and as Rabbi Yochanan himself taught elsewhere: “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.” Leah’s tears teach us to face those moments of prophecy with closed eyes and open, honest hearts.
What might happen if we close our eyes, perhaps letting some tears out, and imagine the world we wish for?
The Talmud tells us:
“When one goes to measure [the corn in] their granary, they should pray, ‘May it be Your will, O Lord our God, to send a blessing upon the work of our hands.’ …But if one measured and then prayed, it is a vain prayer, because a blessing is not found in that which is already weighed, measured, or counted, but only in that which is hidden from the eye. (Talmud, Bava Metzia 42a)”
Blessing can be found in that which is hidden from the eye.
The Midrash on Leah’s eyes ends with a powerful statement by Rav Huna: “So powerful was Leah’s prayer that it annulled her predetermined destiny.”
May we envision tomorrow with renewed hope. And may we recognize the truth of Leah’s beautiful softness, lyrically articulated by Antoine De Saint-Exupery: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Akudim, Nekudim, Verudim
An entire section of this week’s Torah portion is dedicated to… sheep. In the poetic words of my dear friend and colleague, Yanki Tauber, adapted from the Rebbe’s teachings: This week’s Torah reading, Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10–32:3), is veritably glutted with sheep: Laban’s sheep and Jacob’s sheep; white sheep, dark sheep, spotted sheep, speckled sheep, sheep with rings around their ankles. Jacob arrives in Charan, and the first sight to greet him is that of several flocks of sheep congregated around a sealed well; the second is his future wife, Rachel (the name is Hebrew for “sheep”), shepherd her father’s sheep. Soon Jacob is a shepherd himself, caring for sheep, receiving his wages in sheep, breeding sheep with special markings, dreaming of sheep, amassing a fortune in sheep, and finally leading his flocks back to the Holy Land where he will present his brother Esau with a huge gift comprised largely of… sheep.
In the continuing essay, the Rebbe explains the significance of sheep in our relationship with G-d. But what is the meaning behind the different type of sheep that Jacob breeded: Akudim, nekudim, verudim, ringed, spotted and speckled sheep? Why did Jacob invest so much of his time in producing these sheep, and he insists that they become his reward in return for all his labor for his cunning, swindling father-in-law, Laban?
Clearly there is more than meets the eye in this sheep episode. Especially when we read the vision of Jacob – which he shares with Rachel and Leah – of ringed, spotted and speckled animals. And this vision is repeated twice (31:10; 12), and it becomes a sign that G-d “has seen all that Laban is doing to you.” What is the deeper meaning of Jacob’s vision, and why is it that these different types of sheep become the source for “tremendous wealth,” as well as the sign of G-d protecting Jacob?
All things physical are actually reflections or manifestations of their spiritual counterparts.
The Holy Arizal explains in his revolutionary teachings (Etz Chaim, beginning of Shaar (gate) Ha’Akudim) that these three patterned sheep reflect three fundamental worlds in the cosmic order.
Akudim: The rings are bound forms of energy (‘akud’ in Hebrew means bound). The world of akudim is a very early stage in the cosmic order where the ten sefirot – the building blocks of existence – are “ten energies (orot) bound in one container (keli).” The ten emanations are so intense that they cannot yet be distinguished as ten individual forces, and the ‘container’ is just beginning to emerge. Like a seed in its earliest budding stage, the container is tiny, but within it lies concentrated all the energy and details which will in time emerge.
Nekudim: The spots (or dots) are isolated points (nekudah in Hebrew means ‘point’). The world of nekudim is the next stage in the cosmic order, in which the ten sefirot exist as isolated, uncoordinated points of energy. As this stage the energy (light) has become
somewhat diminished and is not as intense as in akudim, hence, ten distinct points; the containers have now matured and are no longer just one single container, but they have developed personality. Yet, in this world – also called the world of tohu (chaos) – the energy is still too intense for the containers, and being that they are uncoordinated energies the containers are unable to contain the intensity of the energy and they shatter (shevirat ha’keilim).
Verudim: The speckles are combined colors (see Zechariah 6:3. Ohr HaTorah Beshalach p. 395) or interconnecting stripes. As Rashi explains verudim: “A white thread encircles his body all around, and its stripes are open and penetrating from one to the other.” At this third stage in the cosmic order the world of verudim – also called ‘tikkun’ and ‘atzilut’ – the energies and containers mature to the point of harmony and coordination. They are no longer ten isolated points, but are one interconnected ‘network’ of sefirot, all working together. Hence, the name ‘tikkun’ they have the power to repair the ‘shattered containers’ of nekudim. The energies in verudim are weaker per se than those in nekudim, and the containers are stronger, yet this is what allows them to fuse with each other. Instead of only two opposing forces in nekudim, the third dimension is introduced, that like a spine, supports and unites the entire structure. (This is also the essence of beauty, see last week’s article).
The Arizal explains, that these three worlds are a result of what “Laban is doing to you,” because “Laban is the secret (‘sod’) of the supernal whiteness (‘loven ha’elyon,’ loven in Hebrew means white) that preceded all these emanations, and he (this level of Laban) is the ‘doer’ of (i.e. the source that made) all these levels, akudim, nekudim, verudim necessary for Atzilut which emanates after them and is called by the name Jacob.” Jacob is the one that reveals the “supernal whiteness” into the three worlds of akudim, nekudim, verudim.
This is why Jacob invested so much of his time and energy in mastering these three stages of psycho-spiritual development. He understood very clearly that the true reason for leaving his parents in Israel (Beersheba, the fountain of seven) and coming to Charan and building a family there – to enter the inferno of Laban’s home in a city called “wrath of G-d” (Charan) – was not to just leave unscathed. The only redemption in enduring all the pain and humiliation was that he would build more than just a physical family; he would come away armed with the secret of eternity: How to master living in a difficult, corrupt material world and transform it. Not only how to survive and remain uncompromised, but how to integrate the universe with higher purpose – with G-dliness. How to fuse the containers and the energies.
This was the great wealth that Jacob amassed in Charan, and this was the promise he received from G-d that He sees “all that Laban is doing to you.” Jacob learned the secret and even more importantly, he shared it with Rachel and Leah and passed it on to all of us.
And what is the secret?
The secret is understanding – even seeing, as in Jacob’s vision – the genesis of it all. All wisdom is about getting to the root of any given phenomenon. Jacob saw how it all comes to be. To defang the perceived adversary we must learn its source of power.
Akudim, nekudim, verudim is the inside story of all that exists. When something comes to be, first it begins as an intense form of energy, not yet shaped, defined. Like a seed just fertilized, like a fetus in its first moment of conception, like the spark of an idea just spawned. Concentrated energy, including all the details to come, held in a miniscule container.
Then, the entity begins to grow, but will always go through an awkwardness, a tension that can even lead to chaos and upheaval, to the point of shattering. Too much energy, too little seasoning. Many drives, little focus. Passion without direction, intensity without grounding and coordination.
This stage is necessary, it is a form of adjustment – a so called “market correction” – necessary to realign and readjust material reality with Divine reality. When seen in its full light, the destruction of tohu is in order to build something greater. Like the razing of a building in order to build a greater one in its place. Like the deteriorating seed that allows the fruit to bloom. Or the death of the cocoon so that the butterfly can emerge. We need to shed one layer of skin in order to assume a new one.
Then we come to the third stage where we achieve balance and integration. The energies learn to coexist and complement each other. The containers and the energies become acclimated to one another. One union is forged out of the many diverse forces. Hiskalilut (coordination) as opposed to hischalkut (division).
Just as the large universe came into being through these three stages, so too is it with the small universe, the human being, a small universe in microcosm (olam koton zeh ha’adam). Each of us needs to go through all three stages and master all three of them. The objective is verudim, but for verudim to be healthy we need the first two stages as well.
So, after all is said and done, there is much that we can learn from Jacob’s tending the sheep. Jacob spent his days in the fields learning the mysteries of existence from simple sheep. We, his children, are given these mysteries as a gift – tools that help us live our lives.
There are so many ways that Jacob’s sheep can be used in dealing with life’s challenges. We can apply them to the way we love each other and our children, and the way we intervene in confrontational situations, even the way we analyze the global clashes taking place today.
When faced with a challenge, quantify it in the three akudim /nekudim/ verudim stages. Figure out which stage any given event or experience is up to. Is it at the budding, intense akudim stage, or at the scattered and fragmented nekudim stage, or ready for the networking verudim stage? This can help define the issue and the problem, which will allow you to find a solution.
How many more messages can we derive from these three stages? If you have any, please share them with me. Meanwhile, have a very good week. One that births many beautiful fruit…
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Laban the Aramean
The events narrated in this week’s parsha – Jacob’s flight to Laban, his stay there, and his escape, pursued by his father-in-law – gave rise to the strangest passage in the Haggadah. Commenting on Deuteronomy 26:5, the passage we expound on Seder night, it says as follows:
Arami oved avi. Go and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob, for Pharaoh condemned only the boys to death, but Laban sought to uproot everything.
There are three problems with this text. First, it understands the words arami oved avi to mean, “[Laban] an Aramean [tried to] destroy my father.” But this cannot be the plain sense of the verse because, as Ibn Ezra points out, oved is an intransitive verb. It cannot take an object. It means “lost,” “wandering,” “fugitive,” “poor,” “homeless,” or “on the brink of perishing.” The phrase therefore means something like, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” The “father” referred to is either Jacob (Ibn Ezra, Sforno), or Abraham (Rashbam), or all the patriarchs (Shadal). As for the word Aram, this was the region from which Abraham set out to travel to Canaan, and to which Jacob fled to escape the anger of Esau. The general sense of the phrase is that the patriarchs had no land and no permanent home. They were vulnerable. They were nomads. As for Laban, he does not appear in the verse at all, except by a very forced reading.
Secondly, there is no evidence that Laban the Aramean actually harmed Jacob. To the contrary, as he was pursuing Jacob (but before he caught up with him) it is written: “God appeared to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, ‘Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad’” (Gen. 31:24). Laban himself said to Jacob, “I have it in my power to do you harm; but the God of your father said to me last night, ‘Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad.’” So Laban did nothing to Jacob and his family. He may have wanted to, but in the end he did not. Pharaoh, by contrast, did not merely contemplate doing evil to the Israelites; he actually did so, killing every male child and enslaving the entire population.
Third, and most fundamental: the Seder night is dedicated to retelling the story of the Exodus. We are charged to remember it, engrave it on the hearts of our children, and “the more one tells of the coming out of Egypt, the more admirable it is.” Why then diminish the miracle by saying in effect: “Egypt? That was nothing compared to Laban!”
All this is very strange indeed. Let me suggest an explanation. We have here a phrase with two quite different meanings, depending on the context in which we read it.
Originally the text of Arami oved avi had nothing to do with Pesach. It appears in the Torah as the text of the declaration to be said on bringing first-fruits to the Temple, which normally happened on Shavuot.
Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt… Then the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm… He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first-fruits of the soil that You, Lord, have given me.” (Deut. 26:5-10).
In the context of first-fruits, the literal translation, “My father was a wandering Aramean,” makes eminent sense. The text is contrasting the past when the patriarchs were nomads, forced to wander from place to place, with the present when, thanks to God, the Israelites have a land of their own. The contrast is between homelessness and home. But that is specifically when we speak about first-fruits – the produce of the land.
At some stage, however, the passage was placed in another context, namely Pesach, the Seder and the story of the Exodus. The Mishnah specifies that it be read and expounded on Seder night. Almost certainly the reason is that same (relatively rare) verb h-g-d, from which the word Haggadah is derived, occurs both in connection with telling the story of Pesach (Ex. 13:8), and making the first-fruits declaration (Deut. 26:3).
This created a significant problem. The passage does indeed deal with going down to Egypt, being persecuted there, and being brought out by God. But what is the connection between “My father was a wandering/fugitive Aramean” and the Exodus? The patriarchs and matriarchs lived a nomadic life. But that was not the reason they went down to Egypt. They did so because there was a famine in the land, and because Joseph was viceroy. It had nothing to do with wandering.
The Sages, however, understood something deep about the narratives of the patriarchs and matriarchs. They formulated the principle that ma’asei avot siman lebanim, “What happened to the fathers was a sign for the children.” They saw that certain passages in Genesis could only be understood as a forerunner, a prefiguration, of later events.
The classic example occurs in Genesis 12 when, almost immediately after arriving in the land of Canaan, Abraham and Sarah were forced into exile in Egypt. Abraham’s life was at risk. Sarah was taken into Pharaoh’s harem. God then struck Pharaoh’s household with plagues, and Pharaoh sent them away. The parallels between this and the story of the Exodus are obvious.
Something similar happened to Abraham and Sarah later on in Gerar (Gen. 20), as it did, also in Gerar, to Isaac and Rebecca (Genesis 26). But did Jacob undergo his own prefiguration of the exodus? He did, late in life, go down to Egypt with his family. But this was not in anticipation of the Exodus. It was the Exodus itself.
Earlier, in our parsha, he had gone into exile, but this was not because of famine. It was out of fear for Esau. Nor was it to a land of strangers. He was travelling to his mother’s own family. Jacob seems to be the only one of the patriarchs not to live out, in advance, the experience of exile and exodus.
The Sages, however, realised otherwise. Living with Laban, he had lost his freedom. He had become, in effect, his father-in-law’s slave. Eventually he had to escape, without letting Laban know he was going. He knew that, if he could, Laban would keep him in his household as a kind of prisoner.
In this respect, Jacob’s experience was closer to the Exodus than that of Abraham or Isaac. No one stopped Abraham or Isaac from leaving. No one pursued them. And no one treated them badly. It was Jacob’s experience in the house of Laban that was the sharpest prefiguration of the Exodus. “What happened to the fathers was a sign for the children.”
But where does Laban come into the phrase, Arami oved avi, “A wandering Aramean was my father”? Answer: only Laban and Laban’s father Betuel are called Arami or ha-Arami in the whole Torah. Therefore Arami means “Laban.”
How do we know that he sought to do Jacob harm? Because God appeared to him at night and said “Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad.” God would not have warned Laban against doing anything to Jacob, had Laban not intended to do so. God does not warn us against doing something we were not about to do anyway. Besides which, the next day, Laban said to Jacob, “I have it in my power to do you harm.” That was a threat. It is clear that had God not warned him, he would indeed have done Jacob harm.
How can we read this into the verse? Because the root a-v-d, which means “lost, wandering,” might also, in the piel or hiphil grammatical tenses, mean, “to destroy.” Of course, Laban did not destroy “my father” or anyone else. But that was because of Divine intervention. Hence the phrase could be taken to mean, “[Laban] the Aramean [tried to] destroy my father.” This is how Rashi understands it.
What then are we to make of the phrase, “Pharaoh condemned only the boys to death, but Laban sought to uproot everything”? The answer is not that Laban sought to kill all the members of Jacob’s family. Quite the opposite. He said to Jacob: “The women are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks. All you see is mine” (Gen. 31:43). Jacob had worked for some twenty years to earn his family and flocks. Yet Laban still claimed they were his own. Had God not intervened, he would have kept Jacob’s entire family as prisoners. That is how he “sought to uproot everything” by denying them all the chance to go free.
This interpretation of Arami oved avi is not the plain sense. But the plain sense related this passage to the bringing first-fruits. It was the genius of the Sages to give it an interpretation that connected it with Pesach and the Exodus. And though it gives a far-fetched reading of the phrase, it gives a compelling interpretation to the entire narrative of Jacob in Laban’s house. It tells us that the third of the patriarchs, whose descent to Egypt would actually begin the story of the Exodus, had himself undergone an exodus experience in his youth.
Ma’asei avot siman lebanim, “the act of the fathers are a sign to their children,” tells us that what is happening now has happened before. That does not mean that danger is to be treated lightly. But it does mean that we should never despair. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives experienced exile and exodus as if to say to their descendants, this is not unknown territory. God was with us then; He will be with you now.
I believe that we can face the future without fear because we have been here before and because we are not alone.
 Mishnah Pesachim 10:4.
 The principle does not appear explicitly in these terms in the classic Midrashic or Talmudic literature. A similar expression appears in Bereishit Rabbah 39:8. A key text is Ramban, Commentary to Gen. 12:6, 10. It was widely adopted by subsequent commentators.
 On this whole subject, see David Daube, The Exodus Pattern in the Bible, Faber, 1963
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 Rabbi David Kasher
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.
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.
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?
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
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.
How the Light Gets In (Vayetse 5776)
Why Jacob? That is the question we find ourselves asking repeatedly as we read the narratives of Genesis. Jacob is not what Noah was: righteous, perfect in his generations, one who walked with God. He did not, like Abraham, leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house in response to a Divine call. He did not, like Isaac, offer himself up as a sacrifice. Nor did he have the burning sense of justice and willingness to intervene that we see in the vignettes of Moses’ early life. Yet we are defined for all time as the descendants of Jacob, the children of Israel. Hence the force of the question: Why Jacob?
The answer, it seems to me, is intimated in the beginning of this week’s parsha. Jacob was in the middle of a journey from one danger to another. He had left home because Esau had vowed to kill him when Isaac died. He was about to enter the household of his uncle Laban, which would itself present other dangers. Far from home, alone, he was at a point of maximum vulnerability. The sun set. Night fell. Jacob lay down to sleep, and then saw this majestic vision:
He dreamed and, look, there was a ladder set on the earth, with its top reaching heaven; and, look, angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And, look, the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread forth to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you and through your offspring. And look, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen. 28:12-17)
Note the fourfold “and look,” in Hebrew ve-hinei, an expression of surprise. Nothing has prepared Jacob for this encounter, a point emphasized in his own words when he says, “the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.” The very verb used at the beginning of the passage, “He came upon a place,” in Hebrew vayifga ba-makom, also means an unexpected encounter. Later, in rabbinic Hebrew, the word ha-Makom, “the Place,” came to mean “God.” Hence in a poetic way the phrase vayifga ba-makom could be read as, “Jacob happened on, had an unexpected encounter with, God.”
Add to this Jacob’s night-time wrestling match with the angel in next week’s parsha and we have an answer to our question. Jacob is the man who has his deepest spiritual experiences alone, at night, in the face of danger and far from home. He is the man who meets God when he least expects to, when his mind is on other things, when he is in a state of fear and possibly on the brink of despair. Jacob is the man who, in liminal space, in the middle of the journey, discovers that “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”
Jacob thus became the father of the people who had their closest encounter with God in what Moses was later to describe as “the howling wasteland of a wilderness” (Deut. 32:10). Uniquely, Jews survived a whole series of exiles, and though at first they said, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” they discovered that the Shekhinah, the Divine presence, was still with them. Though they had lost everything else, they had not lost contact with God. They could still discover that “the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”
Abraham gave Jews the courage to challenge the idols of the age. Isaac gave them the capacity for self-sacrifice. Moses taught them to be passionate fighters for justice. But Jacob gave them the knowledge that precisely when you feel most alone, God is still with you, giving you the courage to hope and the strength to dream.
The man who gave the most profound poetic expression to this was undoubtedly David in the book of Psalms. Time and again he calls to God from the heart of darkness, afflicted, alone, pained, afraid:
Save me, O God,
for the floodwaters are up to my neck.
Deeper and deeper I sink into the mire;
I can’t find a foothold.
I am in deep water,
and the floods overwhelm me. (Ps 69:2-3)
From the depths, O Lord,
I call for your help. (Ps. 130:1)
Sometimes our deepest spiritual experiences come when we least expect them, when we are closest to despair. It is then that the masks we wear are stripped away. We are at our point of maximum vulnerability – and it is when we are most fully open to God that God is most fully open to us. “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps.34:18). “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise”(Ps. 51:17). God “heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds” (Ps. 147:3).
Rav Nahman of Bratslav used to say; “A person needs to cry to his Father in heaven with a powerful voice from the depths of his heart. Then God will listen to his voice and turn to his cry. And it may be that from this act itself, all doubts and obstacles that are keeping him back from true service of Hashem will fall from him and be completely nullified.”
We find God not only in holy or familiar places but also in the midst of a journey, alone at night. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for You are with me.” The most profound of all spiritual experiences, the base of all others, is the knowledge that we are not alone. God is holding us by the hand, sheltering us, lifting us when we fall, forgiving us when we fail, healing the wounds in our soul through the power of His love.
My late father of blessed memory was not a learned Jew. He did not have the chance to become one. He came to Britain as a child and a refugee. He had to leave school young, and besides, the possibilities of Jewish education in those days were limited. Merely surviving took up most of the family’s time. But I saw him walk tall as a Jew, unafraid, even defiant at times, because when he prayed or read the Psalms he felt intensely that God was with him. That simple faith gave him immense dignity and strength of mind.
That was his heritage from Jacob, as it is ours. Though we may fall, we fall into the arms of God. Though others may lose faith in us, and though we may even lose faith in ourselves, God never loses faith in us. And though we may feel utterly alone, we are not. God is there, beside us, within us, urging us to stand and move on, for there is a task to do that we have not yet done and that we were created to fulfil. A singer of our time wrote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” The broken heart lets in the light of God, and becomes the gate of heaven.
 Likkutei Maharan 2:46.
From Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer
Love Is Not Enough (Vayetse 5775)
Judaism is supremely a religion of love: three loves. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” And “You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in a strange land.”
Not only is Judaism a religion of love. It was the first civilisation to place love at the centre of the moral life. C. S. Lewis and others pointed out that all great civilisations contain something like the golden rule: Act toward others as you would wish them to act toward you, or in Hillel’s negative formulation: Don’t do to others what you would hate them to do to you. This is what games theorists call reciprocal altruism or Tit-for-tat. Some form of this (especially the variant devised by Martin Nowak of Harvard called “generous”) has been proven by computer simulation to be the best strategy for the survival of any group.
Judaism is also about justice. Albert Einstein spoke about the “almost fanatical love of justice” that made him thank his lucky stars that he was born a Jew. The only place in the Torah to explain why Abraham was chosen to be the founder of a new faith states, “For I have chosen him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Gen. 18: 19). So why the combination of justice and love? Why is love alone not enough?
Our parsha contains a gripping passage of only a few words that gives us the answer. Recall the background. Jacob, fleeing home, is taking refuge with his uncle Laban. He falls in love with Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter. He works for seven years so that he can marry her. The wedding night comes and a deception is practised on him. When he wakes up the next morning he discovers that he has married Rachel’s elder sister Leah. Livid, he confronts Laban. Laban replies that “It is not done in our place to marry the younger before the elder.” He tells Jacob he can marry Rachel as well, in return for another seven years work.
We then read, or rather hear, a series of very poignant words. To understand their impact we have to recall that in ancient times until the invention of printing there were few books. Until then most people (other than those standing at the bimah) heard the Torah in the synagogue. They did not see it in print. The phrase keriat ha-Torah really means, not reading the Torah but proclaiming it, making it a public declaration.
There is a fundamental difference between reading and hearing in the way we process information. Reading, we can see the entire text – the sentence, the paragraph – at one time. Hearing, we cannot. We hear only one word at a time, and we do not know in advance how a sentence or paragraph will end. Some of the most powerful literary effects in an oral culture occur when the opening words of a sentence lead us to expect one ending and instead we encounter another.
These are the words we hear: “And he [Jacob] loved also Rachel” (Gen. 29: 30). This is what we expected and hoped for. Jacob now has two wives, sisters, something that will be forbidden in later Jewish law. It is a situation fraught with tension. But our first impression is that all will be well. He loves them both.
That expectation is dashed by the next word, mi-Leah, “more than Leah.” This is not merely unexpected. It is also grammatically impossible. You cannot have a sentence that says, “X also loved Y more than Z.” The “also” and the “more than” contradict one another. This is one of those rare and powerful instances in which the Torah deliberately uses fractured syntax to indicate a fractured relationship.
Then comes the next phrase and it is shocking. “The Lord saw that Leah was hated.” Was Leah hated? No. The previous sentence has just told us she was loved. What then does the Torah mean by “hated”? It means, that is how Leah felt. Yes she was loved, but less than her sister. Leah knew, and had known for seven years, that Jacob was passionately in love with her younger sister Rachel. The Torah says that he worked for her for seven years “but they seemed to him like a few days because he was so in love with her.”
Leah was not hated. She was less loved. But someone in that situation cannot but feel rejected. The Torah forces us to hear Leah’s pain in the names she gives her children. Her first she calls Reuben, saying “It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.” The second she calls Shimon, “Because the Lord heard that I am not loved.” The third she called Levi, saying, “Now at last my husband will become attached to me” (Gen. 29: 32-35). There is sustained anguish in these words.
We hear the same tone later when Reuben, Leah’s firstborn, finds mandrakes in the field. Mandrakes were thought to have aphrodisiac properties, so he gives them to his mother hoping that this will draw his father to her. Rachel, who has been experiencing a different kind of pain, childlessness, sees the mandrakes and asks Leah for them. Leah then says: “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?” (Gen. 30: 15). The misery is palpable.
Note what has happened. It began with love. It has been about love throughout. Jacob loved Rachel. He loved her at first sight. There is no other love story quite like it in the Torah. Abraham and Sarah are already married by the time we first meet them. Isaac had his wife chosen for him by his father’s servant. But Jacob loves. He is more emotional than the other patriarchs. That is the problem. Love unites but it also divides. It leaves the unloved, even the less-loved, feeling rejected, abandoned, forsaken, alone. That is why you cannot build a society, a community or even a family on love alone. There must be justice-as-fairness also.
If we look at the eleven times the word “love,” ahavah, is mentioned in the book of Genesis we make an extraordinary discovery. Every time love is mentioned, it generates conflict. Isaac loved Esau but Rebekah loved Jacob. Jacob loved Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn, more than his other sons. From this came two of the most fateful sibling rivalries in Jewish history.
Even these pale into insignificance when we reflect on the first time the word love appears in the Torah, in the opening words of the trial of the binding of Isaac: “Take now your son, your only one, the one you love …” (Gen. 22: 2). Rashi, following Midrash, itself inspired by the obvious comparison between the binding of Isaac and the book of Job, says that Satan, the accusing angel, said to God when Abraham made a feast to celebrate the weaning of his son: “You see, he loves his child more than you.” That according to the Midrash was the reason for the trial, to show that Satan’s accusation was untrue.
Judaism is a religion of love. It is so for profound theological reasons. In the world of myth the gods were at worst hostile, at best indifferent to humankind. In contemporary atheism the universe and life exist for no reason whatsoever. We are accidents of matter, the result of blind chance and natural selection. Judaism’s approach is the most beautiful I know. We are here because God created us in love and forgiveness asking us to love and forgive others. Love, God’s love, is implicit in our very being.
So many of our texts express that love: the paragraph before the Shema with its talk of “great” and “eternal love.” The Shema itself with its command of love. The priestly blessings to be uttered in love. Shir ha-Shirim, The Song of Songs, the great poem of love. Shlomo Albaketz’s Lecha dodi, “Come, my Beloved,” Eliezer Azikri’s Yedid nefesh, “Beloved of the soul.” If you want to live well, love. If you seek to be close to God, love. If you want your home to be filled with the light of the Divine presence, love. Love is where God lives.
But love is not enough. You cannot build a family, let alone a society, on love alone. For that you need justice also. Love is partial, justice is impartial. Love is particular, justice is universal. Love is for this person not that, but justice is for all. Much of the moral life is generated by this tension between love and justice. It is no accident that this is the theme of many of the narratives of Genesis. Genesis is about people and their relationships while the rest of the Torah is predominantly about society.
Justice without love is harsh. Love without justice is unfair, or so it will seem to the less-loved. Yet to experience both at the same time is virtually impossible. As Niels Bohr, the Nobel prize winning physicist, put it when he discovered that his son had stolen an object from a local shop: he could look at him from the perspective of a judge (justice) and as his father (love), but not both simultaneously.
At the heart of the moral life is a conflict with no simple resolution. There is no general rule to tell us when love is the right reaction and when justice is. In the 1960s the Beatles sang “All you need is love.” Would that it were so, but it is not. Let us love, but let us never forget those who feel unloved. They too are people. They too have feelings. They too are in the image of God.
 Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19: 18, and see Leviticus 19: 33-34.
 C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, New York, 1947.
 Shabbat 31a.
 See for example Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield, Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution and Mathematics (or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed). Melbourne: Text, 2011.
 Albert Einstein, The World As I See It, New York: Philosophical Library, 1949.
 This has halakhic implications. Keriat ha-Torah is, according to most rishonim, a chovat ha-tsibbur, a communal rather than an individual obligation (unlike the reading of the Megillah on Purim).
 The classic example is the untranslatable verse in Gen. 4:8, in which Cain kills Abel. The breakdown of words expresses the breakdown of relationship which leads to the breakdown of morality and the first murder.
 Rashi to Genesis 22: 1.
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 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?
Reb Miles Krassen
From The Maqam Project
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)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
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 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
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 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 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 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 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)
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
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 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.”
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
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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 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.
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
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