Parshat Vayitze: Chasing A Dream in the Middle of Nowhere

Video of the Rabbi and Artist in conversation about the Parsha:

For more about Artist Mordechai Edel:

For more about Rabbi Ronnie Cahana:

Piece Description, “Jacob’s Dream”

Jacob’s Dream” explores the exchange of gifts given when Jacob encountered G-d’s angels. The rock that he lays on expands to four structures: a Sukkah, an Almond Tree, a Celestial Ladder and the Holy Temple. We are invited to imagine the cacophony of construction, blessings and transformations woven between the music and shofar blasts of the angelic chorus. Though Jacob has taken repose from his current journey, this dream shows the full arc and completion of many journeys to come. Mordechai’s vision is an invitation to dream and paint a world of joy together.

Discussion Questions

1. What are the gifts that the angels give Jacob and what are they given in return?

2. What processes of metamorphosis and symbols can you detect as you progress upward in the painting? What could be the significance of these transformations?

3. Why is it only in resting that Jacob is able to envision the journey of the Jewish people?

4. Mordechai Edel spells out the word סולם, ladder, using the symbols of the Sukkah, an Almond Tree, Ladder and Temple. Why do you think he chose these four in particular?

(טו) וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֙יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ וַהֲשִׁ֣בֹתִ֔יךָ אֶל־הָאֲדָמָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזׇבְךָ֔ עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ׃

(15) 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.”

(כא) וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה ה' לִ֖י לֵאלֹקִֽים׃

(21) and I return safe to my father’s house— ה' shall be my God.

(א) אם יהיה אלקים עמדי. אִם יִשְׁמֹר לִי הַבְטָחוֹת הַלָּלוּ שֶׁהִבְטִיחַנִי לִהְיוֹת עִמָּדִי, כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָמַר לִי וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ:
(1) אם יהיה אלקים עמדי IF GOD WILL BE WITH ME — if He will keep for me these promises which He has made me that He would be with me, even as He said to me (v. 15), “Behold, I am with thee” (Genesis Rabbah 70:4),

Ramban (28:21)
[…]In line with the simple meaning of Scripture it is further possible that the word im אם does not indicate a doubt in the matter, but such is the way of Scripture when referring to future events, such as: until ‘im asithi’ (I have done)… In all these cases it means if there will come a time when the condition is satisfied, then the deed will be fulfilled, that is to say, ve’im does not mean “if it occurs,” but rather “when it occurs.”

Rabbi's Sermon: Rabbi Ronnie Cahana

Ramban disagrees with Rashi that Yaakov Avinu, upon hearing G-d’s Promise (Genesis 28: 15), doesn’t answer conditionally, but maybe with the most profound peirush, explanation, in all of Tanach. Nachmanides (Ramban) says that Yaakov elevates The Shem Hameforash (the explicit name of G-d), the One Who Attends to the world through Chessed, mercy, to review his life when he returns to Eretz Israel instead through the attribute of Din, judgement. He uses Y-K-V-K to define a transformation into Elokim “י-הו-ה לי לאל-הים” using the title of compassion before that of judgement, outlining the journey before him. So profound will be Yaakov’s transformation in the land of Haran, that it compels a transformation of his twin Esau, as well, when they finally meet upon Yaakov’s return. Esau becomes a lover of Hashem and goes to Seir to learn how to serve the Al-mighty to receive his judgement, like the Seir of Azazel on Yom Kippur, and Yaakov heads for Sukkot (Vayishlach 33:16,17) with unmitigated joy. This is a completion of Avraham and Sarah’s mission in Haran.

We remember Yitzhak blessing Yaakov, “May G-d give you from the dew of the heavens and from the fatness of the earth” (Toldot 27:28). And he blesses Esau, “Behold that the fatness of the earth shall be your dwelling and of the dew of the heavens from above” (Toldot 27:39). Pay attention that Yitzchak only evokes G-d’s Name (הָאֱ-לֹהִ֔ים) in Yaakov’s blessing. The dew of the heavens emphasizes the spiritual relationship with G-d that Yaakov is to cultivate and his relationship with G-d must be foremost.

But what happens when Yaakov goes to Pharaoh and recounts his life (Genesis 47:8)? He recounts and reflects that it was full of hardship,” וְרָעִ֗ים הָיוּ֙ יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיַּ֔י” “Terrible were the days of my life.” He is referring to how his life was full of deceit, “Not only did my children deceive me, but even my wives.” Jacob, from despair, now has the voice of Esau, echoing his bitter cry to his father when he experienced deception and filled with violent anger.

He says life is suffering, but he denies all the blessings of his life, which are many. He is saved from the famine and from the plague. He is a leader. He is reunited with Joseph. And when he comes to Egypt, the Rabbis teach, the famine immediately ceases. He knows life is so profoundly good in G-d’s Hands, and he also knows that Joseph will teach G-d’s Presence to Pharaoh. Joseph becomes the father of the messiah for the gentiles, that is why Jacob blesses Pharoah (Gen. 47: 7-12).

When we create ourselves after Esau, we will have proclivities to be in grim conflict with the world. We are then like Rome. We are warriors against the world, believing that “Might makes Right.” Judaism believes Right makes Might.

Haran, the place Jacob flees to from his home, is the word “anger”; it is the center of the angry world. This is the place where Abraham and Sarah began to teach about G-d. At the center of confusion and delusion is where they brought holiness.

Yaakov’s ladder was planted on earth reaching Heaven and Esau had a ladder too. My mother, Alice Lok Cahana, a Holocaust survivor and artist, painted his ladder as planted from earth to Auschwitz. This, my mother interprets, is the essence of the fatalistic philosophy of Esau. Everything is directed toward despair, dismay and destruction. Esau is a mentality that obfuscates beauty of the eternal and denies divine blessing, creating destruction and obsolescence.

Why did Esau sell the birthright? Why did he desert G-d? Esau disdains his birthright saying, “What good is it for me. I am going to die anyway.” That is away from our destiny. His god is his wants, his impulses. His god is meaningless; it is nothing but want. Judaism does the opposite. The only meaning in life is G-d. It is only about trying to be worthy of G-d’s Holy Eye on us.

At their encounter at the Yabok river, Yisrael, Jacob, changes Esau’s anger and Yisrael departs to Sukkot with unmitigated joy. This is a fulfilment of the transformation that occurs. There is a move in the text from Haran to Sukkot, from anger to joy, from Esau and Jacob to Yisrael.

Every biblical story sees the uprooting of Home. The meaning of life is how to manage the dissolution of childhood, when it mixes with the creation of our essence, moving toward our personal Tzion, The holy land. We all have to recreate our own essence with the experience of leaving our home, exiting the paradise we were born into and becoming the new paradise. We only remember the glimpses of our G-d Given paradise from Eden, now we create anew with our essence mixed in, everyone from their starting place.

We are called to create a home, a space to bring our children and our parents into, to show them how we carried their values to shaar hashamayim, to the Gates of Heaven, to the highest rung of the highest circle of heaven.

The centre of the Ten Commandments is kibud av v’ em, honoring your father and mother and is a core tenant for how to reach the highest heights. It teaches us about the difference of the philosophy of Now vs. the philosophy of Olam Haba, the World to Come:
“כבד את־אביך ואת־אמך למען יארכון ימיך על האדמה אשר־י-הוה א-להיך נתן לך”. Honor your father and mother so that the days on the land that Hashem your G-d is giving you will be lengthened.

Rashi’s emphasis on Jacob’s condition: “שבתי בשלום אל־בית אבי”, that Hashem, G-d, will be for him only if He returns him to his father’s house in peace, reminds us of the core tenet of reveering those that preceded us and carrying that legacy through the length of our lives makes our people’s mission an eternal one. We build our homes in order so we will live long enough to see our life perpetuate the values that were passed down to us (G-d willing we can see the values that are good to cultivate and see their flourishing). To see our life lift up these values to the messianic kingdom of Eretz Yisrael, to our highest selves and community, is to advance to the highest rung of the ladder towards Heaven’s Touch. Life abounds joyously in G-dly Providence.

Poem by Rabbi Cahana

Four Rungs Above
May We Have Heaven Down

Ahava Ahead
Is the cool sunshine adrift in my song?
Is it topical in a region we begot?
Is it undertow of current or overflow outflung?
Or lips upon a border I will own

Boteach the Promises
Yes I will outlive your claptrap
And latch to have the Divine;
You dress the Image as territory plain
That dare not confine nor explain.

Kindness covers it, maybe a
Semaphore in the cirrus clouds
Will deliver our devotion.

P’dut Holy Redemption
That banquet is set
This universe re-assembles
The Consort Attunes
All of Earth upcloseTrembles.