A Spiritual Excercise

A Spiritual Excercise

At the start of our parashah, Jacob departs from his childhood home in Beer Sheva and heads toward Haran, at once fleeing his brother’s wrath and searching for a wife, as per his father’s instructions.

While he is on his journey, night falls, and he finds himself alone and weary in an unfamiliar place, with only the ground for his bed and some rocks as his pillows. There he has a dream of a ladder reaching to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending. Jacob wakes and declares, “Indeed God is present in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16).

What is the nature of Jacob’s realization when he awakens from his dream?

According to Talmudic and midrashic sources, Jacob awoke with new insight into the various ways that we can forge a spiritual connection with God—an insight relevant not only for Jacob, but for us today.

The Talmud (Megillah 17a) seeks to determine exactly where Jacob was coming from when he set off for Haran. They point to a discrepancy in the calculation of Jacob’s age throughout the book of Genesis, noting that when Jacob goes down to Egypt, the Torah says that he is 130, whereas all the other calculations suggest that he ought to have been only 116.

How to account for the missing fourteen years?

The rabbis posit that Jacob first left his father’s home and spent fourteen years studying Torah in the House of Ever, some sort of early beit midrash. Only then did he set out for Haran.

This midrash also explains why we are told that Jacob left Beer Sheva twice – once at the end of last week’s parashah (Genesis 28:5), and once at the start of this week’s parashah (Genesis 29:1). Presumably he first left home for his fourteen years of study; then, when he left for the second time, he was departing not from home but from the beit midrash.

When Jacob dreams of the ladder of angels, then, he has just spent fourteen years deeply immersed in Torah study. But at Beit El—the site of his dream—he connects to God for the first time not through Torah study, but through prayer.

The rabbis (Berakhot 26a) note that the Torah uses an unusual word to describe Jacob’s arrival at Beit El: “He came upon [vayifga] a certain place and stopped there” (Genesis 29:2). They explain that the term vayifga is a reference to prayer, based on the use of this term in the book of Jeremiah 7:16 as a synonym for prayer.

According to the rabbis, each of the patriarchs was responsible for instituting one of the three daily prayer services: Abraham instituted the morning prayer when he prayed for Sodom, Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer when he went out into the field, and Jacob instituted the evening prayer at Beit El.

Notably, it is only Jacob who prays to God in a moment of actual and existential darkness, alone in the night after leaving his hometown and uncertain of the future ahead.

According to this reading, Jacob’s dream marks the transition from a life of Torah study to a life of prayer, as Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg notes on p. 278 of her book The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on The Biblical Unconscious.

The midrash in Genesis Rabbah 69:7 offers a creative reading of the verse used to describe Jacob’s awakening. The Torah teaches that Jacob awoke “from his sleep” [mishnato], but Rabbi Yohanan reads this word as mi-mishnato, meaning that Jacob woke up from his Mishnah, that is, from his learning.

The nineteenth-century Hasidic commentator on the Torah known as the Ma’or Va-Shemesh (R. Kalonymous Kalman Epstein, on Genesis 28:16) explains that when Jacob awoke, he realized that Torah alone would not bring him to a full awareness of God. He said, “Indeed God is present in this place,” meaning that God can be encountered through prayer as well, “and I did not know it,” meaning that he had not realized the power of prayer until that point.

Jacob has to learn that prayer is an equally powerful, if very different, way of connecting to God.

Whereas Torah study is about novelty, prayer is about repetition. When we study Torah, we try to master and synthesize more and more material, and coming up with new insights that cast everything that came before in a whole new light.

Prayer, in contrast, is about reciting the same liturgy day after day, knowing exactly what we will read in the prayer book even before we open it.

Whereas Torah study is about taking something unfamiliar—a new sugya, a new midrash—and internalizing it until it becomes familiar, prayer is about taking the familiar—the same liturgy we say every day—and infusing it with such deep intentionality that it is as if we are saying these words for the very first time.

To study Torah is to move forwards, to plow onwards, to forge ahead, perhaps fleeing one’s brother or seeking out one’s spouse; to pray is to stand still, to press our feet together like angels, to stop in the middle of a journey and lie down upon a stone for a pillow.

As an avid exerciser, I sometimes think that Torah study is like running, whereas prayer is like yoga. When we study Torah, we try to go as far as we can in the text, covering as much ground as possible and keeping track of how far we’ve gone.

When we pray, we repeat the same words and the same choreographed body motions over and over; if we pray too quickly to concentrate, we have defeated the purpose. We aspire to feel each word and each stretch, and this requires proceeding slowly and deliberately.

Both Torah study and prayer strengthen our spiritual muscles, but in different ways. 

Several spiritual thinkers have commented that when we pray, we are speaking to God; when we study Torah, God speaks to us. The image of the ladder, then, is quite an apt one to describe this transitional moment in Jacob’s life: The ascending angels are bearing Jacob’s words to God, whereas the descending angels are bearing God’s words of Torah down to Jacob.

As Jacob came to appreciate, prayer and Torah study are two of the fundamental ways in which we forge a connection between the world of human beings and the heavens above.

To live our lives in dialogue with God—at once speaking to God and hearing God’s voice—we need to engage in both.

See more: Parashat Vayetzei

Originally posted as part of the Conservative Yeshiva at the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center’s Torah Sparks. Support Torah learning from the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center/Conservative Yeshiva for leaders and seekers around the world here.

Authors

  • Ilana Kurshan teaches Talmud at the CY. She is the author of If All the Seas Were Ink (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) and Why is This Night Different From All Other Nights (Schocken, 2005). She has a degree in History of Science from Harvard and in English literature from Cambridge, and has worked in literary publishing both in New York and in Jerusalem – as a translator, a foreign rights agent, and as the Books Editor of Lilith Magazine. Since October 2020, Ilana has been a regular contributor to Torah Sparks, FJC’s weekly parashat hashavuah blog.

  • The Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center (FJC) is a hub in the heart of Jerusalem for transformative encounters with Torah and Israel powered by a commitment to intellectual honesty, egalitarian values, spiritual growth, and lifelong engagement in the Jewish world. https://fuchsbergcenter.org/

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