Shabbat Inspiration –  V’yetzei

by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Intern, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, November 16, 2018

This week’s Torah portion is V’yetzei… the portion opens

Jacob left Beer-sheba and set out for Haran.  He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set.  Taking on of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.  And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac:  the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring.  Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.  All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.  Remember, I am with you;  I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land.  I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”  Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I, I did not know it!”

What kind of dream is this?   How do we interpret what we experience? How do we sense the presence of what some would call God, others would say the Source of Life?  As a child I guess I expected thunder, lightning, and an old man in a robe to appear in front of me with beams of light coming from his outstretched arms.   Today I look for other signs.

This semester, several of the courses I am taking are in one way or another touching on this subject.

One class, “Your Brain on God:  the neuroscience of prayer” examines the neurological basis for what happens to someone during prayer and meditation.  Offered through Claremont School of Theology, the class began with a basic grounding in neuroscience and how the brain functions, how information is gathered, how it is imprinted, how memory forms, and how all this collective information shapes our perception as we move through life.

What strongly emerged from this was an understanding that everyone is “one of a kind.”   From before we are born, our brains are already imprinting… by the time we emerge as adults, we have become neurologically unique – our perceptions of our surroundings, our reactions to stress, how we deal with other people, these combine to make us infinitely more unique than our fingerprints.    And with this as background, with 29 Christians and Catholics of all strips and collars, 2 Buddhists, one Muslim, one yoga practitioner, and me in the class, when we talk about God and how we perceive his/her/their/its existence, and when we talk about prayer and meditation, their purposes and effect, we are clearly not always talking about the same thing.

For some in the class, prayer is a personal grounding experience, a form of mediation.  For others, it is a tool for articulating what they want to be different in the world, and for others, it is a timebound obligation.  For some, there is a god in their prayers who a force that works through us and is manifest in our actions; for others, god is person such as Jesus who is a daily presence; and for others there is no outside power.  Belief in god in this class is all over the map.   And yes, we are all seekers – seeking meaning and connection but following such different paths to find it.

Returning to the Torah portion for a moment, “Jacob had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.  In my “Introduction to Mysticism” class, we are using dream interpretation as an exploration of the possibility that our dreams are a doorway into a connection with the divine. Whether the Source of Life is directly communicating with us when we dream; or that perhaps we are processing unresolved issues or conflicts; or embarking on creative endeavors that we not have time for during our waking life, dreams provide us with insights that we don’t have at other times.   Jacob’s insight was that he would be the progenitor of a great nation… his descendants as many as the sands of the sea, and this insight became his focus for the rest of his life.

Jacob’s dream end’s with “Achen yesh Adonai b’makom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati.”  “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I, I did not know it.”  Jacob had gone to sleep on the ground with a rock for a pillow, in a place in the middle of nowhere, and when he awoke, he understood that even in such a forlorn place, the Source of Life can be found.  It is knowing how to recognize the signs and hear the voice. Remember, Moses was the only person to whom God spoke directly.   “Achen yesh Adonai b’makom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati” is an amazing acknowledgement that the Source of Life can speak to all of us in many ways.  Whether through prayer, meditation, dreams, walking a labyrinth, or sitting quietly watching the sun set.

As I am learning so clearly in my class at Claremont, through all our differences, one commonality a strong sense that we are not alone, that we are a part of something grander and more powerful than our human endeavors.  Achen yesh Adonai b’makom hazeh v’anochi yoda’at … the Source of Life is here and now I, I know it.

May we learn to recognize the Source of Life when it speaks to us.  May we awake from our dreams and acknowledge that we are not alone and the we are part of something grand and more powerful than our individuality.    Shabbat shalom.