This past Monday I boarded the plane for Costa Rica to join my wife and children on our six-month excursion to Central America.
The trouble started the moment I tried to check in.
Due to a new baggage restriction that went into effect that very day, the woman at the ticket counter told me I was only allowed to check two bags. I had three.
After a scramble to repack everything right then and there, another woman came over and started whispering something to the first woman. The new woman nervously informed me that I also wasn’t allowed my two carry-on bags. I could only have one carry-on, plus a small item such as a purse or tiny backpack.
Repack again. Text my friend who dropped me off, run out to curb with a bunch of stuff I expelled from my suitcases, dump it in the trunk. Finish checking bags, get to gate just in time to board. Not in a good mood.
Sitting between two people. One continuously rubs his arm against mine for hours as he types at his tablet device. A thought occurs to me- what if they lose my luggage? Airlines have misplaced my suitcases on multiple occasions, and once, a suitcase of mine was even lost for good. And I don't even like hot humid weather!
Suddenly, as these thoughts are occurring to me, the plane starts lurching violently. The captain asks the flight attendants to have a seat. It feels like the plane keeps hitting huge potholes in the sky. The guy next to me gasps as his tablet device literally flies up into the air. I feel myself thrown upward as well, but I’m held in place by the seatbelt.
After a few minutes of this, another thought occurs to me- I didn’t have time to finish davening that morning! Without hesitation I reach for my siddur and start the morning prayers:
Barukh she’amar v’ahyah ha’olam-
Blessed is the One who speaks the universe into being…
Now I tell you the truth- the turbulence stopped immediately within seconds after I started davening. Did the davening cause the turbulence to stop? Was this testimony to the power of prayer?
The mind loves this kind of question.
Some minds will jump in- “See, the power of prayer at work!” Others will be skeptical- “The turbulence would have stopped anyway, but because you started praying at that time, your mind makes a correlation where there was none…”
That’s the dualistic mind- it’s one or the other.
But there is a third way-
And that’s to see that all events are part of a single Reality, and that This One Reality is what we call God. God is the turbulence, God is the prayer, and God is the ending of the turbulence. It’s not three things- it’s not me stopping the turbulence with prayers; there’s only one continuous event, one Reality- God’s unfolding in time.
Seen that way, the prayers could even be taken right out of the equation. There was turbulence. It stopped. Is that not miracle enough?
I was thrown out of my seat. That reminded me to pray. Is that not miracle enough?
I’ll tell you this:
In the moment that the turbulence subsided as I chanted the prayers, that moment was all there was. The luggage tzures no longer mattered. What had happened at the ticket counter was in the past, and whatever was going to happen later at the San Jose airport was in the future. Only that moment was real.
In this week’s reading, Jacob has a similar experience:
“Vayeitzei Ya’akov mibe’er shava vayelekh kharana, vayifga baMakom-
“Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva and walked toward Haran. He encountered The Place…”
It’s a strange sentence- “He encountered The Place…”
But the word for The Place- HaMakom- is actually one of the Hebrew names for God. By calling God The Place, the text is giving us a hint about where God can be found. For Jacob, “The Place” was between the home he had left behind and the new home he was going to. Between the past and the future, he encountered God.
Where is this special Place between your past and your future that you encounter God?
That Place, of course, is always where you 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. Past and future are important.
But when past and future 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.
When disconnectedness dominates one’s life (God forbid), and the alienation becomes more and more painful, you can reach a point where something has to shift. That’s what happened to Jacob. He was running from his brother Esau whom he had tricked and cheated, and now Esau was trying to kill him. Jacob is in a dark place:
“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?
“He took from the stones of The Place and put them for his head…”
What are the qualities of stones? They are dense. They are heavy. They don’t blow around, but are still.
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” to his “head” hints at a radical shift in consciousness. He is bringing his mind all the way down to the stones and becoming still.
And then something startling happens:
“And he dreamt- and behold! A ladder was set toward the Earth, its top toward Heaven, 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. 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"!
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:
“Everything is foreseen, yet freedom is given.” (Pirkei Avot 3:19)
“Everything is foreseen”- you have no choice, so surrender your attempt to control anything.
But, in that surrender, you connect with the only true freedom there is- your freedom to choose how to respond in this moment.
Jacob’s newfound freedom is expressed a few verses later:
“Jacob lifted his feet and went…”
It is as if he is now flying, his feet in the air...
At the end of my flight, I had ample opportunity to practice surrender once again, when my two suitcases never arrived at baggage claim.
It took the airline three more days to locate them in Mexico, send them to Costa Rica and deliver them to The Place we’re now staying. And while this particular practice of surrender was powerful for me and apparently necessary, I am happy to be reunited with my sandals and my coffee paraphernalia (along with my beautiful wife and children). Barukh Hashem!
On this Shabbat Vayeitzei, the Sabbath of Going Out, may we all remember to “go out” from our stories in time to meet the Timeless that glows softly within all things. Let’s greet the Timeless One- the Shabbos Kallah, the indwelling Hei Ha'olamim- Life of the Worlds, uniting Her with Her Source through our own inner return to the Ayin- the Nothing from which everything springs- on this Holy Shabbos Kodesh.
Good Shabbos, Good Shabbos,