Lessons in Presence:
teachings, chants and meditations
Weekly Chant Phrase:
"Elohei Olam – "Eternal Divinity of the Universe"
This week’s chant phrase is Elohei Olam – Eternal Divinity of the Universe. Throughout the week, use this phrase to remind you of the Divine Presence that shines in all things – the eternal Reality that takes the form of whatever you perceive. Then, return to Presence by connecting your awareness to something that is present, such as sights, sounds, or body sensations, such as the flow of breathing.
This week’s Lesson in Presence explores this more deeply through the Torah reading, Parshat Vayeitzei, which means "Goes Out." Traditionally, a portion or parshah of Torah is read every week. These lessons often follow these traditional readings. Although not absolutely necessary, I recommend reading through Vayeitzei to fully appreciate these teachings (Genesis 28:10 – 32:3). Here are two resources for reading the parsha on line:
Vayeitzei on Sefaria
Vayeitzei on Chabad
Note: Many more teachings, chants and meditations available in the Index (in process)
Teaching, Chant and Meditation
Audio for Streaming or Download:
This week’s reading, Parshat Vayeitzei, begins with Jacob running away from his brother Esau, who wants to murder him. It says,
“Vayeitzei Ya’akov mibe’er shava vayelekh kharana, vayifga baMakom-
“Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva and walked toward Haran, and he encountered The Place…”
It’s a strange phrase- “He encountered The Place…”
But the word for The Place- HaMakom- is actually one of the Hebrew names for God. By calling God HaMakom, The Place, the text is giving us a hint about where the Divine can be found. For Jacob, “The Place” was between the home he had left behind and the new home he was going to. In other words, between the past and the future. So, where is this special Place between your past and your future in which we can encounter the Divine? That Place, of course, is always where we already are!
And yet, the mind tends to see this Place as insignificant compared to our imagined past and future. After all, our past is our story, our identity, and our future is our desire, our goal. So, past and future are important, but when they become more important than the present, meaning- when imagination becomes more important than Reality, this creates a feeling of being disconnected from Reality, of being disconnected from this Place, from this moment. And when that feeling of being disconnected dominates your life, and the alienation becomes more and more painful, you can reach a point where something has to shift. That’s what happened to Jacob. His origin and his goal became so heavy, that for an instant he was able to pop out of the story and see the moment.
So, what was the story?
The story was that he had tricked and cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing. He had missed his brother’s presence, and instead saw him as a stepping-stone toward his own later success. In other words, his imagined future obscured the reality of his actual present.
And what about his actual future?
He ended up with his trickster uncle Lavan, who returns Jacob’s trickery by manipulating him into working for 14 years in order to marry the girl of his dreams. That wife, Rakhel, eventually ends up dying on the road, after Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi commit murder to avenge their sister who had been violated. Later, their beloved son Joseph is almost killed, then sold into slavery by his other brothers who are jealous of him. In other words, not a happy story.
Furthermore, his uncle Lavan and future wives live in Haran, the place where his grandfather Abraham came from. So in a sense, Jacob’s future is actually his past.
And the place he is coming from, Be’er Sheva, is the land his descendants are destined to live, so his past is really also his future.
So, in a sense, his past and his future are identical, and therefore hopeless, because the future is just a perpetuation of dysfunctional patterns from the past. But in the life of a person, there comes a time when the whole burden of past and future becomes too great, and in one’s despair, the whole thing collapses. This is the moment that Jacob has come to:
“Vayalen sham ki va hashemesh-
And he spent the night there because the sun had set.”
The setting of the sun is a symbol of his inner darkness- Jacob is in despair over his situation.
So, what does he do?
“Vayikakh me’avnei HaMakom – He took from the stones of The Place, and put them down for his head…”
It sounds like he is using stones for a pillow. Would you want a pillow made of stones? Wouldn’t stones make the absolute worst pillow? When we see absurdities like this in the text, they hint that something deeper is going on:
What are the qualities of stones? They’re dense. They’re heavy. They’re still. They don’t blow around. A person’s head, on the other hand, is the place where thought happens. Thought is perhaps the least physical thing in our experience. Rather than being still, it constantly bubbles this way and that. So, bringing “stones of The Place” to his “head” hints at a radical shift from a mind that’s constantly moving, to a mind that’s still. How does the mind become still? By bringing awareness to whatever is present. That’s the avnei HaMakom – the stones of the Place. Stones represent whatever forms are there to perceive. They could be literal stones, but they could also be anything that is present. And when the mind connects with whatever is present, then it naturally becomes still, and yifga Bamakom – you encounter This Place.
**So, before Jacob encounters the Present, he’s just running. But now that Jacob is beginning to despair, he is letting go of his story in time; he is giving up hope. And in this “giving up,” he begins to notice the place he is in. He brings his mind all the way down to the stones, and becomes still.
And then something startling happens:
“Vayakhalom, v’hinei sulam – And he dreamt- and behold! A ladder was set toward the Earth, its top toward Heaven, v’hinei malakhei Elohim olim v’yordim bo – and behold! Angels of God ascended and descended upon it.”
What's the meaning of this vision?
There's a tradition that everything has an angel, or spiritual force, causing it to be. According to this idea, everything we experience is determined in the “spiritual” realm, and we really have nothing to do with it.
The Talmud says, “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the awe of heaven” (Berakhot 33b). In other words, everything that happens is predetermined, except our relationship to it. Other than that, we have no real power. Seen from this point of view, the angels descending the ladder would be the determining forces for what goes on in our world.
However, there’s another opposing idea that every deed a person does actually creates an angel. Do good, create good angels. Do bad, create bad angels. These created angels then go around producing good or bad effects in the world.
So, in this view, what happens is not determined by the angels, but by the human beings creating the angels. In other words, everything is in our hands. This view is represented by the angles ascending the ladder.
But in Jacob’s vision, there are angels going up the ladder and down the ladder; he sees the paradox of both realities at once. Everything is determined by forces which are created by our actions, yet our actions are themselves determined by forces, which are themselves created by our actions, and so on ad infinitum.
So, what's the meaning here? The answer is in HaMakom- this place we have now come to. Because in order to access the Divinity of this moment, you have to surrender your preoccupation with the way things “come out”- you have to give up control. This is the meaning of the angels coming down- everything is in the “hands of heaven”.
At the same time, this supreme surrender actually frees you from your automatic responses to things. You are no longer a victim of your own preferences; you have choice. So, next time you get annoyed with a loved one and you feel yourself going into your same old response, stop. Surrender. Access the power of transformation- the power that allows you to choose how to be. This is the meaning of the angels going up- your choice to be in “awe of heaven.” Meaning, your responses emerge from the open space of consciousness, rather than from automatic, unconscious impulses. Then you will realize like Jacob did:
“Akhein yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh, v’anokhi lo yadati-
Surely God is present in this place and I didn’t even know it!”
There is a mishna that sums it up well from Pirkei Avot 3:19 –
“Everything is foreseen, yet freedom is given.”
“Everything is foreseen”- you have no control, so surrender. Let go.
But, when you do that, you connect with the only true freedom there is- your freedom to choose how to respond in this moment.
In the aftermath of this episode, it says, “Jacob lifted his feet and went…” It’s as if he’s now flying, his feet in the air. This is a poetic description of spiritual freedom, of being liberated from the burden that the nervous system usually carries around. Ironically, we carry this burden because we have the freedom to carry to the burden. That’s the irony. We get imprisoned because we have the freedom to imprison ourselves. As long as our minds are thinking about our situation and calculating how to control things, we tend to get absorbed into that drama, and assume that psychological burden. But when we reach the point of despair, just as Jacob did, and everything seems hopeless, then there’s the possibility of liberation, because we can no longer pretend to have any control.
But, the miracle of Presence is that you don’t actually have to come to a place of despair at all, you just need to redirect your mind away from its natural preoccupation with past and future, and into the avnei HaMakom, the “stones” of your actual experience right now. Meaning, your senses. The sounds that you hear, the sights you see, feelings that arise and fall, and the rise and fall of your own breathing.
In the last lesson we chanted the words, Ham’khadesh B’khol Yom, which is a Divine Name that means, “The One Who Renews Each Day,” or, translated more freely, “The Renewal of the Fullness of the Present.” This phrase comes from the first blessing before the Sh’ma, which, as you may know, is the affirmation of the Oneness of All Being. Now let’s chant another Divine Name that comes from the same blessing, Elohei Olam. Elohei means “Divinity of,” and Olam means both “Eternity” and “Universe.” So, we could translate Elohei Olam as, Eternal Divinity of the Universe. Meaning, the eternal aspect of whatever is present, of whatever form the universe is taking in this moment. The forms are temporary. Everything that exists has come into being and will eventually disappear, but this appearing and disappearing can happen only because there’s a Reality that creates and takes on all the different forms. Reality Itself is Eternal and Ever-Present; it’s the mystery of Being Itself, otherwise known as God. So that’s Elohei Olam – the Eternal Divine Presence in and as everything arising in your experience, right now.
Audio for Streaming or Download:
Eternal Divinity of the Universe