Parashat Vayetze: Self-knowledge as a way to God

Jacob, running away from home, emerges from his dream knowing that God is in that place: “Certainly God is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16).

How does Jacob discern God’s presence from a dream?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt, the 18th century Hasidic teacher, teaches that one can only dream of things that have somehow been experienced. Just as science fiction today is an amalgam of things that we know, be it energy, light, or material in some sense, dreams too cannot be completely out of our reach.

The Apter Rebbe explains that because Jacob had never experienced an angel, upon awakening he knew that this dream had come from “beyond,” not the product of his imagination but the result of a Divine vision.

Another explanation is that Jacob saw the angels “descending and ascending the ladder.” He woke up and got scared. Perhaps the very idea of ​​descent, that somehow descent must precede ascent, reminded Jacob of his own struggles. Running away from home must have felt like a descent, and seeing his own progress re-created scared and perhaps encouraged him. Because it reminded him that going up can keep going down. The force and power of the message told him that God was communicating through his dream.

What these and similar explanations have in common is that they fit the Hasidic reading at the end of the verse – “v’anochi lo yadati, “Normally translated” and did not know. “Can also be read as” and I did not know myself. ”

There are two fundamental directional religious metaphors: upward and inward. Think of the mountain, the sky, the heavens; These are the metaphors of the ascent. Many of the Psalms begin with “Shir Hama’alot – A song of going up. “Although we know that God cannot be located spatially, we have the feeling that God is” above “us.

The second metaphor is inside. Inward, wrote the poet Novalis, the road is full of mystery. This is the metaphor not of height but of depth: the heart, the soul, the discovery of divinity through self-exploration. We travel to the mountain and the depths of the soul.

Jacob’s ladder is at first glance an ascending metaphor. The angels are on a ladder that reaches to heaven. However, when Jacob wakes up, he is shocked by the reality that “I myself did not know myself”, he does not know himself. How could he? He is young and this is his first foray outside the home of Isaac and Rebekah. Self-knowledge takes time, experience and, of course, introspection.

Some may look within themselves and see only fog, darkness, or confusion. Jacob is young, but he is moved by fate and is gifted with vision; Having had such a dream, he comes to understand himself better. He still doesn’t hear from Rachel and Leah; your children are far in the future; his powerful legacy is incipient. But he senses something of the possibility that the dream promises. There exists, as the interpretation of the Apter Rebbe teaches, a reality that he has not begun to grasp or understand, but that he prophetically intuits.

In Deuteronomy we learn that the Torah “is not in heaven” (30:12) but, rather, it is “in your mouth and in your heart (v. 14)”. In other words, the image above gives way to the inner truth of the Torah teaching. Jacob runs away from home and goes on a journey of discovery. His dream shows him something about himself, and in that self-awareness he finds a hint of God.

Jacob’s ladder leads not only to heaven, but to what is within him. Perhaps inspired by Jacob’s vision and accomplishment, Yeats memorably wrote, thousands of years later: “Now that my ladder is gone / I must lie down where all the ladders begin / in the heart’s dirty rag and bone tent.”
The writer is Max Webb, Chief Rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and author of David the divided heart. On twitter: @rabbiwolpe.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *