Divrei Torah

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November 28, 2022 - Parashat Vayeitzei 5783

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeitzei
By Rabbi Steven Altarescu (’14)

We are often running from place to place, from errand to errand, doing our best, tripping up, falling down and getting up and running some more. We face challenges and sometimes we face them with wisdom and sometimes we fail at them. Life can feel like moving on a line, horizontally.

In the last number of years, through the last few election cycles and through the pandemic, we can feel we are running for our lives. Motivated by saving democracy and freedom, and to keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy, while still trying to function in the world. We do not know what is next, both from a political perspective and from a medical perspective, and yet we keep moving. I believe it is very easy to get entangled in our daily lives and lose hope and a sense of purpose.

Yet I also feel like as we move horizontally from one crisis to the next, we also live in an in-between moment. We have isolated, and now with our vaccines we venture out feeling protected, but many of us are still weary as we still see friends and family coming down with Covid. Our country has also ventured back towards political normalcy but many of us remain weary of this situation as well. We are surrounded by a plethora of hate and violence, both in speech and action, by suffering and hopelessness and are more and more divided in how we view the world. We seem to be perpetually in-between one crisis and the next.

How do we continue during these in-between moments to have strength and hope, to feel creative and constructive, to be compassionate to ourselves and others. Yes, ice cream and chocolate help, but they are not the complete answer.

I find guidance and inspiration in this week’s Parasha, Vayeitzei, as Jacob, who is running from one place to an unknown new place, is experiencing his own in-between moment. He has left home at the behest of his mother knowing that his brother Esau has threatened to kill him. He is heading towards his uncle’s house not knowing what kind of reception he will be given. The boy, who has lived under the protection of his mother, now finds himself alone. Yet, he must stop running at least to sleep, and here the Torah shows us the value of stopping and instead of just moving from where we have been to an unknown future, teaches there is value in taking time out. The in-between moment becomes an opportunity to be renewed.

When Jacob stops to sleep using stone as his pillow, he dreams vertically. He dreams of a sulam, a ladder or stairway, that goes from the ground to the heavens with angels of God going up and down. God is next to Jacob and tells Jacob his mission is sacred and God will be with him. I wonder why Jacob needed the ladder in his dream? God could have appeared to Jacob in the dream without the ladder. I suggest the ladder with angels speaks to our need to take time out from our running to stop and find a way to go vertical, into the depths of ourselves and up to the heavens.

What does it mean to go vertical, to have angels rising up and coming down on a ladder? I see this moment in Jacob’s life as an in-between moment, a gap in his way of seeing the world where he is freed to have an experience that opens his heart and mind to new possibilities. Yes, he will re-enter the life he was living but will have a new perspective that informs and inspires him. I am reminded of the song written and sung by Donovan Leitch in 1967.

First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is

First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is

The caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within

Caterpillar sheds his skin to find a butterfly within

First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is

First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain

I read that this song was inspired by a Buddhist teaching about meditation practice in which a Zen practitioner wrote:[1]

“Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.”

The importance of these in-between experiences is not to escape the mundane world but rather to open our hearts and minds in order to connect to what is both deep within us and greater than us. The Torah is teaching us to find our ladders, our ways of connecting vertically. The Torah points us towards the possibilities of numinous experience in these vertical in-between moments.

Jacob wakes up from his dream and says

 אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א

וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם

“Surely YHVH is present in this place and I did not know it!

 Awed, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.

 (Genesis 28:16-17)

Jacob experiences sacred Presence and a sense of wonder and awe, and the ladder becomes his connection from his heart and soul to the Divine. We learn that a sacred practice that moves us out of our usual horizontal world has the potential to lead us to a feeling that the life we lead, the people we meet daily, the ground we stand on and the streets we walk in are imbued with sacred Presence.

It is in this in-between moment, this gap between his old life and his new life that Jacob is strengthened and inspired to continue his journey. We know that as the Torah narrative continues Jacob, like ourselves, is not protected from difficulties and disappointment, yet the experience of connection to wonder and awe and the Divine Presence gives him the patience, wisdom and strength to not allow himself to be discouraged from moving forward.

Fortunately, Judaism and other sacred traditions have practices that are ladders to the sacred deep within us and in the world around us. We need wonder, awe and inspiration in our in-between moments.

One practice, known as metta (loving kindness practice) in Buddhist teachings, and taught in the Jewish tradition as a blessing practice, seeks to open our hearts for ourselves and for others to experience peace, love, joy, compassion, gratitude and wonder. We stop our horizontal lives and narratives to wish ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbors and all beings, these blessings.  In wishing these blessings on ourselves and others we are, in a sense, building our own ladders from our hearts to the sacred and back to our hearts. We are creating an opening in ourselves to focus on middot (characteristics) that move us from anxiety, worry and despair to hope and compassion.

I learned this practice at a recent Jewish meditation retreat. The suggestion given to us is to sit with this practice for a few minutes every day and say the words, “I bless __ with peace, I bless __ love…etc.,” and allow an image of what peace or love or joy might mean for ourselves and for others. Like Jacob, the hope is that we return to our horizontal lives with a new perspective, refreshed and ready to face the challenges and obstacles in front of us with more patience, strength and sense of purpose.

Annie Dillard writes in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

“The gaps are the thing. The gaps are spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time… they are fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery”.

May we honor and take the time to find inspiration in our in-between places, acknowledge our blessings of safety and health, of food to eat and of a community that is there for us, and make our vow of offering these blessings to others. And may we be sustained by knowing that it is by being a blessing to others that our lives are given purpose and hope.

[1] Buddhism & Science: A Guide for the Perplexed Donald S. Lopez, P. 227
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Rabbi Steven Altarescu (AJR 2014) served as co-rabbi with his wife Rabbi Laurie Levy (AJR 2015) at the Reform Temple of Putnam Valley from 2014- 2020. He is a Board Certified Chaplain who has worked at Westchester Medical Center and Northern Westchester Hospital. He is developing his meditation practice and studying painting and mixed media art at the Art Students League and chasing after his four young granddaughters.