Thursday, November 23, 2017

Parashat VaYesse: Mystical Moments

Mystical Moments
A Message for Parashat VaYesse 2016
Click here to view as PDF.

There are moments, and it is only a matter of a few seconds, when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony...A terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you...During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly. (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

* * * *

Several years ago, author Barbara Ehrenreich penned an article for The New York Times, entitled A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment. She described an adolescent experience that jolted her long-held familial tradition of atheism. Walking alone in the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., her world suddenly flamed into life. She vividly recalled the scene:
There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured into it … It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of.
The experience inspired Ehrenreich to set forth a broad agenda for the enhanced scientific study of mystical experiences and encounters.[1] A few days later, Ross Douthat responded by pointing out the near impossibility of Ehrenreich’s suggested mission. He noted that since the field of cognitive science has a great enough difficulty explaining what happens during non-mystical states of consciousness, shedding light on the “moments of encounter” does not stand much of a chance. He instead suggested a shift in scientific focus, from one of dependence on brains scans and fMRI machines to the revival of philosophically-informed psychology and anthropology.[2]
* * * *
As Yaakov set out from Be’er Sheva for Haran, the setting sun forced his stop and subsequent sleep in Bet El, where he dreamed:
…And, look, a ladder was set against the ground with its top reaching the heavens, and, look, messengers of God were going up and coming down it. And, look, God was poised over him… (28:12-13)
God then promised Yaakov the inheritance of Canaan, abundance offspring and continued protection (13-16). Yaakov awoke from his sleep, took note of God’s presence in that place, and said:
“How fearsome is this place! This can be but the house of God, and this is the gate of the heavens.” (17)
Several scholars have noted a connection between this ladder scene in Yaakov’s dream and the terraced towers traditionally built as temples in ancient Mesopotamia, known as ziggurats. The sight of a stairway connecting heaven and earth is strikingly similar to the ziggurat, with its external ramp linking each stage of the tower to the other.

Indeed, the description of Yaakov’s dream employs many similarities to the scene of the tower of Bavel (11:1-9), which seemingly detailed the failed mission of the construction of a ziggurat.[3] The tower had “its top in the sky” (11:4) just as the stairway’s “top reached the sky” (28:12). Each episode furthermore focused on “stones”: the creation of bricks “in place of stones” at Migdal Bavel,[4] and the erection of a stone pillar following Yaakov’s dream and his declaration that the stone be “a house of God” (28:22).[5] What was the significance of this connection?
* * * *
…And Yaakov awoke from his sleep and he said, “Indeed, God is in this place, and I did not know.” And he was afraid. And he said, “How fearsome is this place!” (17)
Yaakov’s response of fear and wonderment to his first encounter with God stands out as unique among the patriarchs. God’s promises and concurrent lesson to him on this occasion notwithstanding, Yaakov’s intense emotional response demands our attention.

Let us first consider the Torah’s narrative of the early life and actions of Yaakov. It consists of two stories: (1) the cunning purchase of the firstborn rights from Esav, and (2) the deception employed to receive Yitzhak’s blessing. Each event is underscored by Yaakov’s ability to manipulate the situation with his wits and cognitive perception. Indeed, the Hakhamim similarly highlighted Yaakov’s intellectual depth, interpreting his occupation as a “tent dweller” (25:27) as reference to Torah study,[6] and describing his 14-year halt to study upon leaving home.[7]

Imagine now the probable approach to knowledge of and faith in God for a person imbued with the smarts and tendencies of Yaakov. It would probably consist of something along the lines of an attempt to prove His existence, an effort to perceive His ways of governance, or the study of His created world. And yet, contrary to man’s historical attempt to approach God by building ziggurat temples or a tower in Bavel, Yaakov’s vision consisted of a ladder that he did not erect, upon which he could not ascend and whereupon God’s presence unapproachably loomed. It replaced rational man’s attempt to approach of God with God’s incomprehensible approach of man.

Leon Kass similarly described the situation:
Jacob’s dream turns out to be a perfect (not to say heaven-sent) device for confronting the rational man with the limits of his rationality…Yet the substance of the dream shows precisely the limits of the human mind’s ability to discern the truth about the world and to provide for a man’s most urgent needs. The sharp-eyed man – and also the sharp-eyed reader – is invited to see the limits of his own sharp -mindedness.[8]
Yaakov encountered God in this instance in a fashion reminiscent of Rudolph Otto’s description of the “numinous” – when man encounters the Almighty by means of an essentially irrational and unconscious feeling.[9] Alternatively referring to this sensation as “mysterium tremendum,” or a “creaturely feeling,” Otto’s association of religion with an internal feeling of “awe” may similarly describe Yaakov’s unexpected experience at this time.

We have all experienced it at some point of our lives. Even the most rationally-minded individuals can relate to an emotionally-rich and difficult-to-describe encounter at some point in their life. Consider, for example, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s description, in his early work Halakhic Man, of the way that his grandfather and role mode R. Hayyim of Brisk would overcome his fear of death through cognitive means, such as the study of the laws of ritual defilement (tum’ah and taharah). R. Soloveitchik provided this account as a primary instance of halakhic man’s insistence that “objectification triumphs over the subjective terror of death.”[10] Years later, however, R. Soloveitchik reflected upon death and noticed:
…The cognitive gesture points toward the unknown, towards the mysterium magnum, which escapes our comprehension. Man’s knowledge rests upon substitution of the known for the unknown, the comprehensible quantity for the qualitative phenomenon; the immediate sense experience will remain an eternal enigma.[11]
William Kolbrener suggested that this shift in R. Soloveitchik’s thought, from an insistence on strict rationalization and objectification to a submittal to the subjective experience, reflects his ongoing engagement with the legacy of the Holocaust, personal tragedies and his perception of American Jewish life in the 1950s.[12]
* * * *
The lasting effects of Barbara Ehrenreich’s mystical encounter led to her desire for the study and objectification of all such experiences. Russ Douthat’s response, however, rings true to reality. Admitting that “I did not know,” Yaakov could not possibly objectify his encounter with God and was instead overcome by the moment’s intensity of fear and awe.

The moments during which we “do not know” provide us with an emotional strength inaccessible through cognition. Setting out on a journey that would lead him far from the comfort of his family and home, Yaakov’s dream taught him that his own rational perceptions couldn't singularly guide him through the difficulties that lay ahead. His emotional experience at Bet El, albeit mystical and indescribable, continues to inspire.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Barbara Ehrenreich, “A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment,” The New York Times, Apr. 5, 2014.
[2] Ross Douthat, “How to Study the Numinous,” The New York Times, Apr. 9, 2014.
[3] Recall our analysis of Parashat Vayera, several weeks ago, Cities & Human Progress.
[4] “And they said to each other, ‘Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.’ And the brick served them as stone, and the bitumen served them as mortar” (11:3).
[5] “And Yaakov rose early in the morning and took the stone he had put at his head, and he set it as a pillar and poured oil over its top” (28:18), “…And this stone that I set as a pillar will be a house of God…” (28:22). For the various parallels and extensive analyses, see, among others, Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York, 1966), pg. 193-4; Yair Zakovitch, Mikra’ot be-Eress ha-Mar’ot (Tel Aviv, IS, 1995), pg. 60-2); and Yehudah Elitzur, Yisrael ve-ha-Mikra (Ramat Gan, IS, 2000), pg. 44-8;
[6] See Rashi’s commentary ad loc.
[7] See Rashi’s commentary to 28:11 (s.v. va-yishkav).
[8] Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom (Chicago, 2006), pg. 415.
[9] Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (Oxford, EN, 1958), translated by John W. Harvey.
[10] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia, 1984), pg. 73.
[11] R. Joseph B. Solovetichik, “The Crisis of Human Finitude,” printed in Out of the Whirlwind (Jersey City, NJ, 2003), pg. 156.