Archives for December 2016

Torah Reflections: December 4 – 10, 2016

Vayeitzei

Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Vision Quest
It is undeniable that some stones in Jerusalem radiate a certain energy. We, as Jews, come to pray at the Western Wall that supported the ancient Holy Temple built on Mount Moriah. We touch the stones of the Wall with our hands, our forehead, our lips, our tears; and one can’t help but feel the vibrations the Wall transmits. In Islam, the golden-domed mosque atop the Temple Mount is called the Dome of the Rock, because in its center is a rocky surface called the Rock of Moriah from which—Muslim legend has it—the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven accompanied by the angel Gabriel. For Jews, that rock is believed to be where the Holy of Holies once stood in the ancient Temple. One can only imagine the energies radiating from this rock.

The idea that stones radiate energy isn’t new. We read in this week’s Torah portion:

And Jacob departed from Beer Shava and went to Haran. He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place and he put [them] around his head, and lay down in that place. And he dreamt… [Gen. 28:10-11]

The dream that Jacob dreamt is that of the ladder upon which angels ascended and descended. But what about this set-up leading to the dream? Rashi (11th century French Rabbi) is bothered by the fact that the Torah does not specifically tell us which place is “the place” —repeated three times in this one verse. Though we know that “the place” is one of the many names of God in our tradition, Rashi reminds us that we last read about “the place” when Abraham “saw the place from afar” [Gen. 22:4] on his way to sacrificing Isaac, and therefore concludes that Jacob’s dream—like his father’s near sacrifice—took place atop Mount Moriah.

Having clarified where the scene takes place, Rashi proceeds to explain that Jacob had set the stones around his head in a “U” shape with stones on three sides, leaving one side open from which his body extended. In the middle of the “U”, he placed one larger stone for his head. These were the stones of “the place,” Divine stones. These were the stones of Mount Moriah that radiate divine energies, all placed around and underneath his head. Could this be describing a ritualistic set-up to induce dreams or visions in the practitioner through the energies of the stones? Rashi himself sees the stones as alive, even quarreling with each other. He tells his readers that as Jacob lays down “God immediately made them into one stone” to explain why the Torah uses the singular a few verses later to recall that, after his dream, “Jacob arose… and took the stone that he had place around his head…” [Gen. 28:18] These were no ordinary stones.

Perhaps, therefore, there is more to this passage than meets the eyes. I suspect that it is, indeed, describing a millennia-old Middle-Eastern version of a vision quest. For what is a vision quest about but going on a personal journey alone in the wilderness in order to find oneself and ones’ intended spiritual and life direction; and to attune oneself to the spiritual world as contact is made with Spirit and one’s life-purpose is revealed in a vision or a dream. Both, indeed, happen to Jacob in this passage. God appears to him in his dream to renew with him His promise to Abraham, and he wakes up secured in the future direction of his journey.

Where is “the place” in our own life that supports a deeper connection to the One Being which beats our heart and breathes our breath? Is it the great outdoors for you, or your little meditation corner at home? What are the “stones” that energize you, that support your own dreaming, that help you gain greater clarity along your life-journey? Are they books, meditations, journals? We owe it to ourselves, every so often, to go on such a vision quest—inner or outer—and find what is yearning to be revealed. Perhaps now, as winter sets in, might be a good time.

Torah Reflections: Nov. 27 – Dec. 3, 2016

Tol’dot

Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Why We Need Conflict

The twin brothers, Esau and Jacob, wrestled each other since before they were born. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion we learn that: “Rebekah became pregnant. But the children almost crushed one another inside her.” [Gen. 25:21-22] Both, it seems, wanted to be the firstborn in order to inherit God’s promise to Abraham from their father Isaac. Esau was the one, eventually, to emerge first from the womb even though Jacob was still trying to pull him back as he “came out holding Esau’s heel.” [Gen. 25:26] The two boys grow up to become two clashing personalities; Esau was a “skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; while Jacob was a homespun man, keeping to the tents” [Gen. 25:27] And even though Esau appears to have de-facto inherited the firstborn status, Jacob’s conniving drive pushes him, first, to trick his brother into selling him his firstborn-right; and then—with his mother’s support—to deceive his blind father by impersonating Esau when Isaac pronounces the blessing that, consequently, makes him the leader of the tribe and the inheritor of God’s promise instead of his older brother.

But Jacob’s wrestling doesn’t stop here. In fact, our rabbis argue, Jacob’s whole life will be a life of wrestling; a succession of trials, torments and crises. Some see it as payback for his original trickery. They point to the fact that Torah describes Abraham dying “at a good ripe age, old and content;” [Gen. 25:8] and Isaac dying “old and content” [Gen. 35:29] as well; but that when it comes to Jacob’s last days he, himself, confesses that “few and hard have been the days of my life.” [Gen. 47:9] Yet Jacob who, ironically, is later called Israel—Divine Wrestler—is the one biblical character that becomes the father of the people that bear his name: the B’nai Yisrael, the Children of Israel. To this day, Jews are referred to not as the Children of Abraham or Isaac, but of Israel, of the wrestler.

Clearly, our tradition holds in high esteem the human experience of struggle. We need conflict. Conflict helps us grow and evolve. It challenges our convictions, and shakes us out of our complacency. Yeshiva students are, by design, paired-up to argue over biblical texts from different perspectives because doing so enriches their understanding. At an individual level, there is something deeply powerful when we allow ourselves to push through those inner places of conflict when we are put in a position that challenges our integrity, our beliefs, or our sense of right and wrong. Wrestling supports our continual evolving in the service of becoming the fullest individual we can be, by preventing us from being bogged down by too rigid personal orthodoxies.

Our culture, however, is deeply uncomfortable with conflict. It has equated conflict with clashing, war, violence, winners and losers. But conflict doesn’t have to be any of that. Every conflict is an opportunity to uncover those hidden aspects of self that might be unconscious roadblocks to our personal growth. This is how Yeshiva students approach it. Their wrestling is l’shem shamayim – for the sake of heaven. Ideally, their arguing is not meant to be about finding out who’s the best student, the more learned. No one wins. Their debate is to remain ego-less—ideally. Their purpose is to gain as multifaceted an understanding of a problem as possible by bringing into the conversation as many rabbinic perspectives as possible. The conflict is meant to expand their consciousness. Can we, too, enter into a practice that embraces conflict with love instead of reacting to it with fear? Can we set a Kavanah – an intention for ourselves to step into conflict as an opportunity to learn and grow? Can we learn to embrace differing perspectives on a given subject? Then, we would truly make our practice l’shem shamayim.