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Parashat Vayetze 5780 — 12/07/2019

Parashat Vayetze 5780 — 12/07/2019

Bereishit 28:10-32:3

Ya’akov departed from Be’er Sheva and went to Charan. He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set; he took from the stones of the place which he arranged around his head, and he lay down in that place. (28:10-11)

There are, traditionally, four ways to interpret Torah, given by the acronym PaRDeS (“paradise” or, more literally, an orchard, from the Persian pardesu = royal hunting park):
• P = P’shat or straightforward interpretation according to the surface meaning of the words;
• R = Remez = hint – the deeper or allegorical meaning
• D = Drash = “inquiry” – deriving deeper meanings through analysis of semantics and grammar
• S = Sod = “secret” – the innermost, “mystical” meaning hinted at by the text

Or haChaim approaches the beginning of our parashah from the point of view of remez (the passage is quite long; I will excerpt some parts of it to give a flavor of his argument):

According to the approach of remez, the passage as a whole relates to the subject of man, as our Sages of blessed memory (Zohar Vol. I 147a) began commenting on the passage: And Ya’akov departed from Be’er Sheva, is an allusion to the soul when it departs from the Upper World [to begin life in this world]. The soul is called “Ya’akov” [from ekev = heel] in reference to the yetzer hara [“evil inclination” – that which attaches us to the material world] which is wrapped around the soul’s “heels” [i.e. its “lower” portion – until the soul enters the body the yetzer hara cannot enter it]. And when it says from Be’er Sheva it alludes to the place from which the soul emerge, called Be’er Mayim Chayim [“the Well of Living Waters”] and Sheva [from shavu’a = “oath”] it alludes to the oath of Hashem that a soul takes when it departs, not to violate the Torah’s word [while on earth] (Niddah 30b). What the verse says next, and [he] went to Charan, can be understood in light of the statement of [the Sages], of blessed memory (Sanhedrin 91b) that the yetzer hara enters into a person when he emerges from his mother’s womb, as it is written (Gen 4:7) sin crouches at the door [and Charan = charon / anger for the yetzer hara will lead to sin and arouse Gd’s anger].

Of course, a remez can hint at multiple meanings. One might also read our verses thus: The Be’er (well) of Be’er Sheva can be read as Pure Being, the wellspring of all existence. The Sheva (lit. “seven”) would then perhaps be the seven-fold mechanics of creation from Pure Being, as given by the 7 “lower” sephirot in Kabbalah. Alternatively, seven = six + one: six for the six directions of space (up/down, forward/backward, right/left – the way we shake a lulav encompasses them all) and one for time, or for the transcendent point that is beyond space and time. Ya’akov’s “leaving Be’er Sheva” can be read as the emergence of creation from the transcendental Being / Be’er. He goes to Charan / “anger” – anger is the result of a lack of harmony between contrasting values, which of course is not a problem until one “leaves” pure Being and ventures into the world of differences.

The question arises, just as in parashat Chayei Sarah, regarding the historicity of the text. Did Ya’akov really leave Be’er Sheva and go to Charan? Were those the real names of these places, and we’re going back and reading meanings into the names, or are the names used to convey deeper layers of meaning? Since there has been a Be’er Sheva in approximately the right place from Biblical times down to the present it’s no stretch to assume that perhaps Ya’akov did leave there and head for somewhere in Syria called Charan where he married his cousins and fathered the family that would grow into the nation of Israel. Of course, the Torah is not a history book; it is a guidebook for life. The historicity of Ya’akov’s journey doesn’t really matter; the lessons that we gain from the story are what really matter. Those lessons, particularly in Bereshit / Genesis, are generally not found on the p’shat level, but more in remez and sod.

The issue becomes more acute when we look at some of the Midrashim surrounding the story. For example, the text says, “He encountered the place.” The Sages explain that Ya’akov had passed right by “the place” (identified as the Temple Mount) and gotten all the way to Charan, before realizing what he had done. Upon deciding to return to pray at this sanctified spot, the ground contracted in front of him and he miraculously arrived back at “the place” in no time at all. Or, Gd promises Ya’akov the land upon which he rested. That’s not much land, so the Rabbis tell us that the whole of the Land of Israel got “folded up” underneath Ya’akov. Thus, Gd really meant to give Ya’akov the same holy land that He promised to Avraham and Yitzchak.

Are we supposed to take these stories literally? Are they implied by the Biblical text, or are they imaginative flights of fancy, based on slight anomalies, intended to teach us something that perhaps the Divine Author never intended? Or to teach us something that the Divine Author did intend, but purposely left obscure?

I think what it comes down to is that there are two sides to our brains, and they represent two ways of understanding the world. The left brain, as is well known, corresponds to logical, deductive thinking. Virtually all halachic expositions of the Bible are of this nature. They tell us how to parse the world of action and how to interact with it. The right brain is more spatial (less linear) and more imaginative. It is equally necessary to understand life and to understand the Bible. This is the area of Midrash; for it is through the imaginative faculty that the ineffable, transcendental value of life, can be as it were pictured and brought to life and made real in a way that discursive logic cannot touch. Logic deals with the world of differences. Wholeness must be understood on its own level – it cannot be sliced up and dissected, it just is. We need to learn a logical approach to the Bible and a transcendental approach as well – drash and Midrash both, to reach as full an understanding as a human being possibly can.

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Vayetzei quotes Maimonides as saying that the place where Jacob dreamed of the ladder and of Gd speaking to him is the same place where the Altar of the Holy Temple stood, where David and Solomon built an altar, where Abraham bound Isaac, where Noah built an altar, where Cain and Abel made offerings, where Adam made offerings and from whose earth Adam was fashioned.

This is obviously a very special place but as Torah says, “Be still and know that I am Gd.”

We have the ability to experience Gd not only at the place of Jacob’s dream but also within our own Stillness and to build the Altar of the Holy Temple within this Stillness, becoming aware of Gd, Gd’s Altar of Holiness, of Liveliness, of Love.

We are doing this. Let us continue more and more sweetly, easily, lovingly and experience the Altar in our Still, Lively, Loving Consciousness – which is within us and everywhere.

audio reading of Parshah Vayeitzei:

The torah tropes in the reading, ascending and descending tones, give the joyous feeling of ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder – the Ladder, our Ladder.

• Jacob’s dream occurs when he is fleeing his brother, Esau, symbolizing the material world. Jacob dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder, Gd above the ladder, telling him He will Bless him, Make him a great nation, Be with him.

I draw on sources such as,, and Wikipedia plus my memory and intuition to discuss the Kabbalistic view of the dream and of the nature of prayer.

The common Kabbalistic view of the ladder is that it represents prayer which enables us to ascend from our material world to increasingly unmanifest worlds, and eventually to intimacy with Gd. This view derives particularly from the Zohar, one of the foundational texts of Kabbalah. The Zohar’s view is that the ladder represents the four worlds (Atzilut, , Beriyah, Yetzira, Asiyah) ranging from the most unmanifest, most heavenly, to the most manifest, most physical. Prayer is the means through which we ascend to come close to Gd, to join with Gd, Who stands above the worlds, Who is One, within which all multiplicity exists as expressions. These four worlds – and a fifth, Adam Kadmon, more subtle still, are mentioned in Isaiah, 43:7, and are considered to exist within the Ein Sof (The Endless), Gd beyond description.

Asiyah is the physical world, the world of action, our familiar world.

Higher than this is Yetzirah, the world of formation, then Beriyah, the world of creation.

Still higher is Atzilut, the world of intimacy.

• Lurianic Kabbalah precedes Atzilut with Adam Kadmon, (The Primordial), which includes all potential creation in latent form.

How is prayer the means to ascend this ladder and to go beyond the veils with which Ein Sof pretends to hide itself?  One fundamental kabbalistic view of prayer, according to, is given in Genesis when Gd gives Adam the power to name all beasts and fowls and thus to become master of the power of words and master of the world the words describe.

The prayers in our siddurs, the prayers of our services, are primarily praises of Gd, expressions of gratitude through which we use words to increasingly appreciate Gd in subtle and subtler, more and more complete ways and thus ascend the ladder to be One with Gd, “standing above”.

We can use these prayers today and every day, and also our own innocent, heartfelt prayers to climb the ladder and return to Oneness.

Baruch HaShem