Vayeitzei: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
“God Was in This Place”
One verse above all others in this Torah portion encompasses the entirety of Kabbalistic thought: “Waking from his sleep, Jacob said, ‘Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!’” (Gen. 28:16). The verse includes a word that is rarely translated from Hebrew because it seems to lead to an unusual turn of phrase. The word is “yesh,” which usually means “there is.” In the context of “yesh YHVH bamakom hazeh” it would mean “there is the Eternal in this place,” a phrasing that translators generally consider awkward—but that’s because most translators aren’t Kabbalists. “Yesh” also means “something-ness, being, or essence.” In other words, one could translate this verse to mean: “Waking from his sleep, Jacob said, ‘Truly, the Essence of YHVH is in this place, and I did not know it.’” This one verse describes the unique path that is Judaism in general and Jewish mysticism in particular. Ours is a path that seeks to awaken to “the Essence of YHVH in this place,” in this world—to realize the Divine Presence filling all of Creation yet transcending all of Creation.
יהוה—approximately rendered YHVH in English—is the four-letter unpronounceable name of God, representing the formless, transcendent, unmanifest aspect of the Divine; what the Kabbalists also call “Ein” or Nothingness. Ein’s counterpart—though our language betrays us since, in absolute terms, Ein knows no counterpart— is also called Yesh, when Yesh, in this case, is understood as Something-ness. In Kabblistic principles, this Universe was created Yesh me-Ein, Something-ness out of Nothingness. However, in our everyday perspective we live under the illusion that this Something-ness is separate from Nothingness. We perceive this world and ourselves within it to exist independently from the Divine. The reason for this is that—as the Kabbalists explain—we, like Jacob, are asleep, unknowing, ignorant. Husks cover our consciousness as well as all physical creation and conceal the Divine from us. In other words, the Nothingness/Ein appears to be concealed within the Something-ness/Yesh. From this perspective, Yesh is all we know.
Our spiritual practice is, therefore, geared toward seeing the holy in the most mundane aspects of creation. The half-joke that we Jews have a blessing for everything highlights this very practice. We will remain asleep as long as we continue to see ourselves and the world as other than Divine. For our sages, the performance of mitzvot in this world serves as a pathway to reveal the Divine Essence in every moment of our existence, in every action we undertake, in every being we interact with. One mitzvah at a time, one spiritually grounded action at a time, we chip away at the husks that seemingly mask the Ein at the source of it all. Eventually, this process leads to what is referred to in Kabbalah as bitul haYesh: at once the nullification of the Yesh/Something-ness of the world, and the nullification of the Yesh/Something-ness of the ego. After both drop away, all that is left is Ein.
Ultimately both perspectives are united. As the Chassidic Master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) explains; in our waking up, even the idea of the concealment of the Divine is seen as an illusion. Something-ness and Nothingness are understood as not two, for there isn’t one separate from the other to conceal it. Like Jacob we exclaim: “The Essence of YHVH is
in this place!” Both Yesh and Ein are one, everything is nothing, everything is God.