"Touch the Earth"- Parshat Vayeitzei
Right now, as you read these words, how are you relating to this moment? Do you feel it to be a passage in time, a means to travel from your past toward your future? Do you feel that this moment is merely a stepping-stone from one moment to the next?
Or, instead, do you encounter this moment in and of itself? In other words- are you present, or are you hurrying through the present?
This parshah begins with Jacob fleeing from his brother Esau and heading to Haran where he will get married and begin a family. The drama of the story portrays this scene purely as a transitional moment. And yet, at this time of hurrying from one place to another, from one stage of life to another, something remarkable happens: “Vayifga BaMakom- He encountered the place” (Gen. 28:11).
What does that mean?
The word for “encounter” (peh-gimel-ayin) means to “meet” or to “happen upon”, but it can also mean to “hit”, as in “hitting the bulls eye”. In other words, this seemingly insignificant moment becomes the “target”. Jacob has an encounter.
What does he encounter? He encounters the “place”. Not a particular thing or being, but the space in which things and beings appear. The word for “the place”- HaMakom- is also a Divine Name. So, when Jacob shifts his attention toward the space within which this moment unfolds, he encounters the Divine. Meaning, he encounters the Reality of the Space Itself, rather than his mental idea of the space as merely a temporal hallway between memory and anticipation.
How does he do it? He places stones around his head and lies down in the “place”. He brings that which is most ethereal and formless- mind and thought- to the most concrete and solid- stones of the earth. This practice of focusing on something physical brings the mind out of its constant stream of thinking, out of its ideas about what is going on, and into connection with what is really going on, right now. Awareness becomes presence by touching forms that are actually present.
Jacob then dreams of a ladder set on the earth, reaching toward the heavens, with angels ascending and descending upon it- “Jacob’s Ladder”. Hassidic master Rabbi Aharon of Karlin taught on this verse that the ladder itself is an instruction in presence. It teaches that when one’s feet are firmly rooted in the earth, one’s head can reach the heavens. Being “rooted in the earth” means that awareness is connected with the physical world, as it is. The “head reaching the heavens” means that, paradoxically, when awareness is totally connected to the physical, you can become aware of that which is aware; awareness becomes aware of awareness. As long as awareness is wrapped up in thinking, it dreams that it is the thinking. It dreams up the “me” that is defined by thinking. But when thinking subsides, there can be this realization: I am not this thought-based self. I am just this boundless, free, radiant awareness. The head has reached the heavens!
Jacob then awakens and exclaims: “Yesh Hashem bamakom hazeh- The Divine is in this place- v’anokhi lo yadati- and I didn’t even know it!”
Here, the Torah gives us an excellent description of what “awakening” is all about- it gives us a "Torah of Awakening". In the dream state, the mind-generated self imagines the Divine to be elsewhere. It is something to be reached, achieved, hoped for, given up on, disillusioned about. But even within the dream there are clues. Just as Jacob understood the message of the ladder, so it is with everything in our lives: If we look carefully, it is possible to see: That which we seek is That which is Present. But to see this requires becoming present. The present is whole, complete, Divine. To be present is to not be separate from that wholeness.
Then, as you journey in the world of time, you can stay connected to that wholeness. You can draw from the wellspring of renewal, even as you do your work in the world, as it says a few verses later- “vayar v’hinei v’er basadeh- he looked, and behold- a well in the field!”
To be sure, as Jacob’s ensuing twenty years of servitude to his uncle Lavan shows, life can still be replete with challenges. But when you are rooted in the earth and your head reaches the heavens, the challenges are different. There is a lightness- as it says when Jacob leaves the “place” after his vision-“Vayisa Yaakov raglav vayelekh- Jacob lifted his feet and went”- it is as if he is flying. Actually, the things and events in time are flying- endlessly coming and going, while the Place remains endlessly the same. What is that Place? It is always where you are and it is also ultimately what you are: Divine Presence, living as this one, ever-changing moment.
Take a moment to connect with the Place through connecting with the Earth- take off your shoes, touch the Earth, bow your head to the ground... enjoy!
When psychological pain burns, it can feel like there is a war going on inside. The mind feels stuck and the emotions are seething. As Rivka (Rebecca) says in Parshat Toldot when the twins in her womb fought with one another: “lama zeh anokhi- why am I like this??”
In the throws of psychological suffering it is natural to question why we should have to feel thus, to question why circumstances are such, to complain bitterly against Reality. Ordinarily, such questioning is an expression of resistance and only creates more suffering. But if you go deeper with your questioning- questioning into the nature of your mind, into the nature of your resistance, you can find the path that leads to liberation. As it says of Rivka’s questioning: “Vatelekh lidrosh et Hashem- she went and inquired of the Divine.”
How do you “inquire of the Divine”? The Divine is Reality- so we have to look at what is really going on. Notice that there is this urge within to control- to bend the world to “my” will. This is the first-born twin- Esav (Esau) who is called “ish yodea tzayid- a man who knows trapping”. The mind seeks to know how it can “trap” the world into conforming to its will. But the other twin, Yaakov (Jacob), is an “ish tam”. “Tam” means both “simplicity” and “taste”; to be simple means to not seek control, but rather to “taste” this moment.
The Esav seeks externally, running out into the “field” to see what he can “trap”. The Yaakov dwells in the tent of the heart, cultivating the nectar of bliss that flows from intimate connection with the inner level of Being. But not to worry- all that outward seeking leaves the Esav drained, as it says- “Esav came in from the field, exhausted”. Eventually, Esav gives up his seeking and returns to drink of the true nourishment: “Pour into me some of that very red stuff!” he says to Yaakov. The word for “red” is “adom”- a slight variation on “adam” which means “human”. This is the nourishment that every human needs! In other words, we cannot live merely by manipulating the world, because no matter how much we are able to make the world conform to what we think we want, manipulation only reinforces a sense of separateness, and this separateness blocks the true sustenance, the vital flow of life energy that you can feel and connect with now, the moment that “now” becomes your aim. Not what you want now, but the “now” itself. But for Esav to receive this nourishment, he has to surrender his “birthright”; he has to give up on his self-image, his identity. To fully enter the present is to surrender the “me”- the time-based identity.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be effective in the world or that we shouldn’t have the intention to fulfill our will. That would be madness. In fact, Yaakov is not complete until he gets outside his tent and learns to work in the field as well. Only then, after enduring the hardships of working outside for many years, is he able to make peace with his brother. The inner and outer come into harmony, because the inward quality of the “tent” and the outer quality of the “field” are not really separate anyway. As it says in Pirkei Avot, “Torah is good together with an occupation because the exertion of both of them makes sin forgotten…”
This means not merely that one should spend some time on Torah and some time on earning a living, but rather that one should remain rooted in the Timeless while doing one’s work in time. Only then can your thoughts, words and actions flow from the Place of the Timeless, bringing true blessing into manifestation. May this Shabbat be a wellspring of nourishment from the Timeless tent of the heart! Good Shabbos!
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We have so many needs and desires- from food and shelter to companionship to livelihood to enjoyment- the list goes on. But at the root of all that we want and aspire toward is this common simple adjective: “good”. We want a delicious meal because it’s “good”, right?
But what is “good”? You might think that the delicious food is the cause of the goodness you experience. But if you look more closely you will see- besides the sensuality of the food itself, there is a deeper goodness that is not from the food. It is a goodness that arises from your appreciation, from your openness and presence with the food. While it is true that the food may have elicited this experience, it isn’t the cause of it. This goodness is the basic quality of what you are. In fact, it is the basic quality of what everything is- it is simply Being Itself. Beneath your thoughts and feelings, there is this wellspring of nourishment, of bliss without a cause. The mind thinks it needs this and that in order to have goodness- but let go of all the conditions and you will see- the goodness is there, shining forth from everything.
In this week’s reading, Parshat Hayey Sarah, Abraham’s servant Eliezer is sent out on a mission to find a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac. Eliezer finds Rebecca by a wellspring of water after praying for a sign. He prays that the one he seeks should give him water to drink and also water his camels. Immediately, Rebecca appears by the spring and fulfills his prayer.
In the symbolic language of Torah, both the wellspring and Rebecca herself represent the Divine as the simple goodness of Being, shining forth from everything. In Kabbalah, this goodness is the feminine Divine Presence- the Shekhinah. When Eliezer recounts how he came upon Rebecca, he says, “va’avo hayom el ha’ayin”- literally, “I came today to the spring.”
The Hebrew of this phrase is so rich- “ayin” means “spring”, but it also means “eye”- hinting that the way to “come to the spring”- to tap the wellspring of goodness within- is to come into your senses, to come out of your mind and into what your senses are receiving. Coming into the senses brings you into “today”- hayom- the present!
Even deeper- the word for “to” in the phrase “to the spring” is "El", which also means “Divinity”. So come into your senses, enter the present, and drink from the wellspring of Divinity that offers Herself to you constantly. Like Rebecca, she is generous, and her waters are unceasing.
There is another word with the same sound as ayin but spelled a little differently. This other ayin means “nothingness”, hinting at the stillness needed to receive Her ever-present flow. The mind must give up its activities, its obsessions, its busyness. Then, into that space flows the life giving waters, nourishing not only our spirit, but healing our bodies- our “camels” as well. May this Shabbat open a true space in our lives and may we all be nourished by the goodness that flows into that space!
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There is an aphorism often heard in spiritual circles-
“Be in the world, but not of the world.”
What does this mean exactly?
There are at least two questions that come to mind about this phrase. First, what does it mean to “be in the world”? Aren’t we always already in the world? Second, what does it mean to not be “of the world”? Aren’t all of us of this world? What other world would be “of”?
To understand, let’s look at what our activities ordinarily consist of. Usually we spend our waking hours acting on the world or being acted on. We do things bring about some result. And yet, if our actions are to be sensitive and responsive to the beings around us, there needs to also be an element of just being with the world, not only acting upon it. There needs to be awareness and receptivity. This is the act of being in the world; it doesn’t mean merely existing, it means doing the activity of being with- of being present, aware, and open.
With this receptivity, however, there can be the fear of getting trapped by that which we are open to. Did you ever walk the longer route in order to avoid being seen by somebody? Often we will ignore or avoid people and situations because we fear some negative experience. But there is another way. You don’t have to shut down or hide; you can remain fully open to whatever comes, but also not cling to it. Let things come and let things go. Open yourself, let things come, and then return to openness- let things go. This is being “not of the world”, in the sense that you don’t let things in the world define who you are. You can become intimately involved with whatever comes along and then totally let go of it, let it pass on its way.
This week’s Parshat Vayera begins with a story of Avraham sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day in the Plains of Mamre. Rather than shut himself up in the shade of his tent, he goes and sits at the entrance, looking to see who will come along. Three strangers appear, and he runs to them and bows before them. He invites them to come, rest, wash, eat- “v’sa’adu libkhem- and sustain your hearts”- and then “akhar ta’avoru- afterward, pass on”. He doesn’t only invite them in, he also invites them to leave.
The “tent” is like our sense of self, which can be closed off or open to what is now emerging in this moment. Even in the “heat”, meaning times of difficulty and suffering, you can welcome what this moment brings. Avraham’s tent sits in the vast “plains”- our little self sits in the vastness of this moment. Eternity is stretched out before us. There is infinite potential and infinite uncertainty. And yet, we need not fear what comes. We need not contract into our “tent”. We can be the supreme host like Sarah and Avraham, who epitomized hospitality, welcoming and offering our attention to whatever this moment brings. And then, let it pass on and return our attention to the vast openness. Things and beings and situations come and go, even our “tent” will eventually go, but the vastness remains.
This is the secret of the enigmatic first verse of the parshah- “Veyeira eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamre- and the Divine appeared to him in the Plains of Mamre.” It says the Divine appears, but then Avraham looks up and sees three strangers approaching. What happened to the appearance of the Divine? But that’s the point: when we are open to the fullness of this moment, there can be the recognition that every appearance is an appearance of G-d. Everything emerges from the vastness and eventually returns there.
So welcome what is, right now. There is only one G-d, and This is It!