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Thoughts on Parashat VaYesse 2019
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And Yaakov left Be’er Sheva and set out for Haran. And he came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night…and he lay down in that place, and dreamed…And Yaakov awoke from his sleep and said, “Indeed, God is in this place, and I did not know.” (Bereshit 28:10-16)
Rashi commented upon the apparent uniqueness of Yaakov’s sleep at that time, writing: “In that place (Be El) he lay down, but during the (prior) fourteen years that he served in the House of Ever he did not lay down at night, because he was occupied with the study of Torah.” Indeed, it is reasonable to imagine Yaakov as an individual who abhorred sleep. He would, in fact, remark twenty years later to Lavan that “Scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night; and sleep fled from my eyes” (31:40). The mission-driven Yaakov employed a cunning mind and deceptive spirit to control his destiny. We all know people like that. They never have time for sleep!
But God had another plan for Yaakov. Rashi cited the Hakhamim’s reading of the text: “The sun set for him suddenly, not in its normal time, so that he should spend the night there.” Seeking a prophetic dialogue with Yaakov as He had with Avraham and Yisshak, God laid Yaakov to sleep. This must have felt unnatural for Yaakov. He was unaccustomed to the diminished state of consciousness and loss of cognitive control inherent to sleep. Yaakov’s reaction upon waking best reveal his feelings of vulnerability at that time – “Indeed, God is in this place, and I did not know.” Yaakov was uncomfortable with “not knowing.” Whereas in the past it was he who “knew” what Esav and Yisshak did not, Yaakov now experienced himself what it meant to “not know.”
I believe that Yaakov’s dream on the mountaintop at Bet El instilled him with more than just a feeling of humility. It exposed him to a dimension of thought that he had until then left unexplored. “There is a profound intimation here about the dynamics of sleep,” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote, “about the loss of consciousness and the possible gifts of unconsciousness, about knowing and dreaming.” What is the difference between wakeful “knowing” and restful “dreaming”? Oliver Sacks explained that the electrophysiological properties of the brain in waking and dreaming are quite similar. There is a single mechanism for both – the constant inner-talking between the cerebral cortex and the thalamus, a continuous interplay of image and feeling. Waking and dreaming, then, are fundamentally the same, distinguished only by the sensory input of wakefulness. Whereas a “waking consciousness” derives from sensory input, dreams are the product of their absence. Dr. Sacks summarized: “Waking consciousness is dreaming – but dreaming constrained by external reality.” Yaakov’s state of dreaming, then, opened him to the mental world of “unconstrained thought.”
The Kabbalists distinguish between two distinct modes of thought – hokhmah and binah. Hokhmah derives from the words “koah mah,” or “the potential of what.” It refers to the question of what something really is – its essence. Binah, on the other hand, relates to the word “bein,” or “between.” It implies separation, as you look at something logically and put yourself at distance from it. While deciding to build a home, for example, hokhmah is the initial flash that enters into the mind about what the house will look like (its essence as a home), while binah is the deliberate blueprint of structure and rooms (its intricate details).
Arriving at the top of the mountain at Bet El, Yaakov must have taken in the landscape and its environs. Employing his cognitive faculty of binah, which he was adept at doing, he immediately noticed the mountain’s many externalities – the grass, the rocks, the trees, etc. Laying him to sleep, however, God encouraged Yaakov’s entrance into the realm of hokhmah. He urged him to see beyond the “logical” and “apparent,” and into the “essence” of that mountain. And so, he did:
And Yaakov awoke from his sleep…And he was afraid and he said, “How fearsome is this place! This can be but the house of God, and this is the gate of the heavens.” (28:16-17)
As the trappings of wakefulness faded away, Yaakov’s mind now extended beyond the sensory input of consciousness. He tapped into the pristine perception of hokhmah, and beheld the unfathomable reality that lay before his eyes.
But it is possible to experience hokhmah even while awake. Albert Einstein remarked: “At times I feel certain that I am right without knowing the reason.” And R. Moshe Sofer z”l, the great 19th Century Hungarian authority and author of Hatam Sofer, more than once told his students that his method to answering halakhic questions was based upon intuition, immediately stating answer that first came to his mind. Upon making that initial determination, R. Sofer would search “backwards” grounding the answer in its appropriate sources.
“The major decisions of man’s life are made spontaneously and suddenly,” R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z"l once said, “in response to an aboriginal command from within.” He pointed to decisions of faith, marriage, solutions to financial problems, acts of military genius and a variety of other pivotal resolutions in life that are often reached intuitively.
The chaotic nature of life, however, has a way of distracting us. We are often led astray from our intuition in directions that we ourselves choose, based on a variety of logical factors and determinations. Awakened to a similar reality of “self-blindness,” Yaakov expressed surprise that he had failed to intuit the sanctity of his sleeping place. Although it took a dream to “open Yaakov’s inner eyes,” we can “open our eyes” even while awake – by following our intuition.