So much of emunah (faith) and connectedness revolve around sleep and dreams, at least for me. In moments of faithlessness and doubt, I sometimes get overwhelmed with anxiety and find it hard to sleep– thoughts are racing through my head, and I find it hard not to think of things from every angle. It’s a cycle that is sometimes tough to quiet, at least enough to slip into slumber. Dreams, too, however far out, are often connected to the state each of us are in at that time. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic approach to oneirology (the scientific study of dreams) is that they are partially drawn from experiences and stimuli in the waking world. He says that dreams are our road map to the unconscious, reflecting our deepest desires and wishes.
It’s written in Peirush HaRokeach that a person’s spiritual stature can be recognized through their dreams; even when we are doing nothing [i.e. during sleep], our thoughts may still be that Hashem is standing over us.1 The way I see it, we can create sound sleep and healthy dreams by strengthening our emunah and bitachon (trust).
In this parashah of Vayeitzei, we see Yakov having his famous dreams where Hashem is speaking to him and “standing over him”, at the top of a ladder that reaches the heavens, upon which angels are ascending and descending.
This is the month of Kislev, when we read of these famous dreams: Yakov’s dream of the ladder, the dream of wrestling with the angel, Yosef’s dream with his brothers, Yosef interpreting the dreams of the Chief Butler and the Chief Baker in Egypt, and, two years later, interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams in such a way that he gets appointed to be the governor of Egypt (second only to the king).
Sefer Yetzirah associates the month of Kislev with sleep, as the nights start to feel longer. At night, one can be drawn to their yetzer hara and busy themselves with desires that take them further away from being connected to the Light of the Infinite. As is stated in The Zohar, “When the night is split (i.e. at midnight), then a call goes out, ‘Like birds caught in a trap, so too are men caught.'”
But on the other end, there is an opportunity in the darkness to connect on a deeper level, to wake up from one’s spiritual slumber. The Chatam Sofer teaches that the first day of the month of Kislev falls exactly forty days after Sukkot. He calls it a mini Yom Kippur, containing in it the power to help us change our negative habits.
The Zohar and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov stress the importance of Tikkun Chatzot (Midnight Lamentations), which is also the time that King David would play his harp and compose his psalms. It is this act of lamentations that shifts sleep and dreams from a place of a Freudian, yetzer hara desires to an elevated space of rejuvenation and connection.
There are many interpretations regarding Har Moriah (the Temple Mount), where Yakov gathered twelve stones together, placing them under and around his head, and witnessing them miraculously fuse into one stone. This is where he had his dream, the same place where his father Yitzchak laid on the altar prepared to sacrifice his life, the space of the Even Shetiyah (the foundation stone of creation), the place where the world was born, where the Garden of Eden was, where the two Beit HaMikdashes (Holy Temples) were, and where the final Beit HaMikdash will be. Yakov calls this place Beit El, literally, the House of God. In his vision, he saw it as the entrance to Heaven, and he intended to build it as a gateway to Heaven. The Torah says, “Behold! Hashem was standing over him,” blessing him in his dream:
וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֙יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ וַהֲשִׁ֣בֹתִ֔יךָ אֶל־הָאֲדָמָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזָבְךָ֔ עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ
Behold, 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.2
Yakov wanted assurance that he would be protected on his journey. The Zohar asks why Hashem appeared to Yakov only in a dream. It says, “How could it be that to holy Yakov, the chosen of the patriarchs, and in such a sacred place, G‑d was revealed only in a dream? Yakov was not yet married and Yitzchak was still alive. You may wonder why, after he was married, it is written: “I…saw in a dream”.3 This was because he was outside Israel, and Yitzchak was still alive. Therefore it is written that he dreamt. Afterwards, when he came to the Holy Land with the tribes and ‘the barren woman’, he was perfected with them: ‘and be a joyful mother of children’.4 It is written: ‘And G‑d appeared to Yakov,’ 5 ‘And G‑d spoke to Israel in the vision of the night’.”6 The reason why this is a significant question is because we see other visions in the night, a lower level revelation through dreams with folks like Abimelech7, Laban 8, and Balaam.9 One reason the Zohar gives is because Yakov was not yet complete; he was not yet married. Once he married, he received higher level revelations. We also see that he had not yet merited to become a leader, because he wasn’t prepared to face things head on.10
When Esav enters their father’s tent, Yakov exits through the other door. When Esav threatens him, Yakov flees. At that point, he didn’t yet have the characteristics needed to be a leader. Having faith throughout hardships is difficult, but we have to tap into faith in those moments just the same, because the ups come from the downs, and we need to remain faithful so that the downs eventually don’t feel bad at all. It’s only the weight that we allow it to carry that makes it as heavy as it seems, but when we remember it will all be for the best and it will all be good, that is what can make it feel weightless. Hashem is promising Yakov that He will do what he promised, but even in the journey towards that, He will not forsake him. And only later, when Yakov encounters the angel in another dream in the next parashah, Vayishlach, is he renamed Israel (because he “struggled with a divine being and prevailed”). 11 It was the test for him to become Israel, for him to lead a nation, to father the twelve tribes of Israel.
When Yakov stands on the holy ground and sees the ladder, he doesn’t ask for extravagant things or wealth, as most of us would, given such an opportunity. Instead, he humbly says, “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God.”12 The Ralbag explains that, “it is not fitting for a person to be eager for wealth. Rather, he should be content with what’s essential, just as we see with Yakov who asked only for what was essential.” Similar to what we read in Mishlei, “Give me neither poverty, nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me.” 13 This was the prayer of Yakov, a humble life connected to Hashem, not one connected to desires and wealth, in which one prays to God to quench the insatiable thirst for escape from the challenges of life that help us grow spiritually.
In the next verse, Yakov says, “And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.” (וְהָאֶ֣בֶן הַזֹּ֗את אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֙מְתִּי֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה יִהְיֶ֖ה בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י עַשֵּׂ֖ר אֲעַשְּׂרֶ֥נּוּ לָֽךְ)14
Ma’asei Hashem explains that the word כל here means “whatever”, implying a satisfaction with whatever he had or will receive. With Avraham, Hashem blessed him using the word בכל (“with all”) in a similar way, to be content with all he had. Esav, on the other hand, did not use this word, but used the word רב (“a lot”), because he was not content with fate, but focused on escaping life and cheating fate. Yakov using the word כל, which implies “all that you give me,” is stressing that all he wants and needs beyond Torah is bread and clothing.
Yakov represents the yetzer tov (good inclination and spirituality) and Esav the yetzer hara (evil inclination and materialism). And we’re meant to learn from their stories that we have to focus on the good, on asking only for what we need, not what we want, which is allowing the yetzer hara to lead. This is how we can stay in a space of faith and gratitude, instead of losing focus and falling into a space of want and unhappiness when we may not receive what we think we deserve. Yakov didn’t desire more than the essential, nor was he tempted by such things. He just wanted to be connected and not forsaken, as Rashi explains that a person who has to beg for his bread is called “forsaken”, as it’s written in Tehillim, “I have not seen the righteous forsaken and his seed begging bread”.15
I love this epic insight from Rabbenu Bachya:
This is what tzaddikim ask Hashem. They do not ask for luxuries, but only for what is essential, that without which a person cannot live. As is known, a person who seeks luxuries is subject to all types of confusion. Therefore, a person who fears Hashem should be happy with what he has and be content with less, and should not lust for luxuries. Instead, he should be happy with his awe of Hashem…
And know that had it not been for the fact that man’s inclination is evil from his youth, so that he desires all the wealth and honor in this world, he would not have wanted any of the luxuries and would have been content with necessities, because what is necessary is given by Hashem each day.
This is as we see with the manna: “They gathered it for themselves each day,” because they were not able to set aside manna for any length of time, and not even from one day to the next. As they trusted Hashem, he provided for them each day…
We see with our own eyes how the world is conducted with great and marvelous wisdom. Hashem takes care of His creatures and gives them what is essential. Whatever is needed more is more plentiful, and whatever is needed less, such as pearls and precious stones, is not so common in the world. But food, which is necessary, is common, for you will find wheat in the markets and streets. And so with water, which is more necessary than food. As for air, which is more necessary than water, you will not find a place without air. Thus we see that the more needed a thing is the more it is available in the world. And that is why Yakov asked for bread to eat and clothes to wear – they are essentials. He asked for the minimum, which is the way of the tzaddikim. He did not ask for luxuries, because the Torah detests them, to the extent that it even a king should refrain from them, as it states, “Only let him not have too many horses, and not too many wives, and he should not have an exceedingly great amount of silver and gold.”
Food and clothing played a part in Yakov receiving the Yitzchak’s blessing, trading lentils for the bracha of the bechor and wearing Esav’s clothing while bringing food to his father. Both clothing and food were affected by the sin in the Garden of Eden – our having to toil for our bread and our awareness of our nakedness and the clothing we wear to hide it.
Our post-Edenic state puts physicality and the need to work for our food as one of our difficulties. But we must know that we are meant to spiritualize the material. This, in itself, is a form of teshuva (coming from the word ‘return’). It is not just we who return to Hashem, but, through our acts, we have the ability to return all that He has given us in this world back to a higher place, back to the Source.
It’s said that Yakov had the same pure and holy countenance as Adam prior to his eating from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.16 As we covered last week, Yakov is connected to life, both living in this world and living in it with a focus on its connectedness to the next world. He is tied to the Tree of Life through his humility, his visions, and his sitting in Tents learning Torah.17 While Esav, as we covered last week, is connected to death, as is explained in Bereishit Rabbah on the verse, “mourn the ones inching towards death”. Esav is connected to the Tree of Death. In Bereishit we read, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he (man) shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”18 And as we know, Yakov was grasping Esav’s heel, and so he was named Yakov. Yakov (יעקב) and heel (עקב) share the same root, and we learn from this that it’s Yakov’s mission and ours to never let the sitra achra (the other side) be victorious and trap the soul waiting for rectification. Otherwise we become trapped by lust for wealth, and hooked by money and all the falsehood that comes from focusing on it, as Wu-Tang Clan’s famous anthem goes, C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me).19
As Robert Plant sings on Stairway To Heaven;
There’s a sign on the wall, but she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven
There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who stand looking
And it’s whispered that soon, if we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter20
Abarbanel explains that the sin of Adam and Cain is that they weren’t content with a simple life, with what they were given. They strove for greater things above and beyond what they needed. And this is what led to the Generation of Dispersion (Tower of Babel). The Tower represented a lust so great that it inspired an attempt to reach the heavens and to be equal to God. Yakov’s dream was the holy version of the Tower of Babel, a ladder with its feet on the ground that reached the heavens, with the angels ascending and descending, which is an Itaruta Diletata (Aramiach for “Arousal from Below”). This is an initiative taken by a person through performing mitzvot (commandments) that elicits a reciprocal response from Hashem. This is where one see’s Hashem’s hashgachah pratit, His ongoing, active participation in one’s personal life. As Ramban explains, Hashem chooses in these moments to reveal Himself to an individual.
Humility and gratitude strengthen bitachon and emunah. They are what keeps us connected and reveal a bit more of the Shechinah that is in concealment in this world. In the Talmud it says that R’ Eleizer the Great would say, “Whoever has bread in his basket and says, ‘What will I eat tomorrow?’ is of little faith.”21 This is painting a picture of someone who has what they need, but they want more; they lack bitachon. The Yetzer Hara tempts us to cheat fate, which would essentially be taking manna for the next day. But the Torah says that when the Israelites would take extra manna it would always spoil.
It is human nature to want more, to be scared of not having enough. Our fear makes it as if we have long term memory loss; we forget to lean on faith and see that historically things eventually work out for us. We can take that reassurance into the present moment and feel comforted to know that once again we will have what we need.
Three times a day, we have an opportunity to remind ourselves of this, when, in the Ashrei prayer, we say, Poteyach Et YaDecha/פּוֹתֵחַ אֶת יָדֶךָ… “You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing with your favor.” We say it to remember that Hashem didn’t only create the world in the beginning, but sustains it in every moment, breathing new life into each of us. And it is this faith that we receive all we need from Hashem that makes us richer than any material gain.
The manna represents having that faith in the present, living and experiencing the now with gratitude, dreaming in the present, not worrying or dreaming about the future. This isn’t to say one shouldn’t work and pray towards what one needs or wants. We all have different paths and different levels of wealth (both spiritual and physical). Some are meant to be physically wealthy. It is those people that can complete Hashem’s desire for us to give to the poor and to build community and love and to spread the Torah. Each person knows where their desire for wealth truly comes from, whether it be a place of wanting to give or a place of constantly wanting to take more and more. Not everyone is able to balance the spiritual and material to the extent that wealth tests each of us. For those, they are better to take some of their focus off their desire for money and toiling towards it and put it into toiling towards Hashem, their connection with the Creator, through living in and learning Torah and connecting through tefilah (prayer), tehillim (psalms), and tzedakah (charity, even the poor are commanded to do so).
There’s a story Reb Menachem Mendel of Vizhnitz shared regarding what Hashem told Yakov, “For I will not forsake you until I have done that which I have spoken to you.” He shared that there was a chassid that came to R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev who was once extremely wealthy but had fallen into a series of misfortunes and debt. The Rebbe suggested he buy a lottery ticket and, God willing, would be helped through that. The chassid replied that, he didn’t doubt the Rebbe; if this was his advice, he had full faith in it, but that it could take years for him to win through lottery tickets, and that the creditors would surely be after him before he won his fortune back and, beyond that, he had a daughter to marry off and that, too, was an expense he could no longer afford. So R’ Levi Yitchak promised him that even before he won the lottery that Hashem would make money come his way. The chassid took his leave and, of course, immediately bought a lottery ticket.On his way home, he stayed for a night in an inn that, as it turns out, a certain powerful noble was also staying in. That night, the noble dreamt that there was a Jew staying in the same inn, that he had a winning lottery ticket, and that he should find a way to exchange his apparently valueless ticket with the winning ticket that this chassid had in his possession. The noble woke and realized it was just a dream, so he fell back into slumber. When he fell back asleep, he had the exact same dream, and this time when he woke up, he ordered his servant to find out if there was a Jew staying in the same inn and, if so, to bring him immediately. The servant found this chassid and brought him to the noble’s room. The noble then asked him if he was in possession of a lottery ticket. When the chassid confirmed that he did, the noble suggested they exchange tickets, and that he would even pay the chassid a few gold rubles on top of whatever the ticket had cost. The chassid refused saying, “even if you give me that number of rubles several times over, I will not exchange tickets with you.” The noble was so determined to get this winning ticket that he kept increasing his offer until it reached one thousand rubles, but the chassid still refused the nobleman’s offer. At this point, the noble was livid and ordered his servant to seize the ticket and hand it over to him. After seeing this, he thought for a moment and decided to have mercy on the chassid and said, “Look, I don’t want to really rob you altogether. Here, take the thousand gold rubles that I had offered you, as well as my lottery ticket.” The chassid, feeling distraught, reluctantly accepted both the money, the ticket, and the Divine Providence that occurs in all things and went on his way thinking, “This, too, is for the best.” He continued home and married off his daughter in the style he would have previous to his hardships. Not long after this, the ticket which the noble had forced upon him won him a great sum of money. He knew it was then time to visit his Rebbe, R’ Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Upon his arrival, the Rebbe greeted him and said, “I saw that your luck was running low, indeed, so I had to send along the angelic Master of Dreams to persuade the noble to exchange tickets with you. I could see that his ticket was going to win, not yours. As for the thousand rubles that he gave you in addition, that is because you said you had to marry off your daughter soon; and that is why you were granted a little salvation first, then later a great salvation.” The chassid returned home, and became more prosperous than he had even prior.22
Reb Menachem Mendel of Vizhnitz told this story to illustrate the meaning of the pasuk that even until the redemption that Hashem spoke of to Yakov, He will not forsake him and will show him salvation even in the meantime.
When everything is running smoothly, it’s easy to feel faithful, because everything seems aligned. But in those times, we sometimes think foolishly that it is because of our own doing and not that of Hashem. It’s in those times that we sometimes get shaken up and fall from on high back to a space of humility, back to a space of questioning, so that we can remember that it is all from the hands of Hashem, and that all that we do have has to be connected back to Hashem, that we are meant to spiritualize reality, not materialize it and return it to its holy Source.
Please note: You can read the full and final version of this Dvar in my first book, ‘LIGHT OF THE INFINITE: THE GENESIS OF LIGHT.’
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We cannot choose our blessings or how much light we will receive, but we can continually work to craft ourselves into vessels that are open to receiving – and giving – blessings of light.
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Notes & Sources
- Tzidkat HaTzaddik 3
- Genesis 28:15
- ibid 31:10
- Psalms 113:9
- Genesis 35:9
- ibid 46:2
- ibid 20:60
- ibid 31:24
- Numbers 22:9
- Zohar Vayetze 149
- Genesis 32:29
- ibid 28:20-21
- Mishlei 30:8
- Genesis 28:22
- Psalms 37:25
- Haliquitim Vayeshev, by The Arizal
- Chayei Sara, by Shla Hakodesh
- Bereishit 3:15
- “C.R.E.A.M.” by Wu-Tang Clan
- “Stairway To Heaven” by Led Zeppelin
- Talmud Sotah 48
- A Treasury of Chassidic Tales on the Torah p. 107