Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Weeky Torah Commentary for 1 December on Perashat Vayetze: Stumbling Forward into the Night

From Tikkun:

Weeky Torah Commentary on Perashat Vayetze: Stumbling Forward into the Night

by: Mark Kirschbaum on December 1st, 2011
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When I reached manhood, I saw rising and growing upon the wall shared between life and death, a ladder barer all the time, invested with an unique power of evulsion: this was the dream….Now see darkness draw away, and LIVING become, in the form of a harsh allegorical asceticism, the conquest of extraordinary powers by which we feel ourselves confusedly crossed, but which we only express incompletely, lacking loyalty, cruel perception, and perseverance….

Rene Char, Fureur et Mystere

Last week, we discussed the confusion surrounding the blessings given by Yizhak in terms of the texts’ “concretization”, the way textual blessings might take on interpretations based on changes in their historical actualization. This week, we will leap beyond blessings into dreams and from dreams into reality, and perhaps, back again, by focusing upon the episode of Yaakov (Jacob)’s dream of the ladder ascending to heaven as narrated at the start of this week’s Torah reading.

There are several midrashim which will guide us on our exploration of dreams. The Midrash latches on to an extraneous word in the verse- “and he chanced upon the place and rested there”. The Midrash explains the word vayifga, “and he chanced upon”, as meaning “he prayed there”, using as a proof text the use of the same term in the Jeremiah 7:16 and 27:18. The Midrash states that there, in that place where Yaakov rested, Yaakov created the evening prayer, the Arvit service, described by R. Shmuel bar Nahman as embodying “May it be Thy will that You remove me from darkness to light”. A second curious midrash is found on verse 28:16, which reads “and Yaakov awoke from his sleep, mishenato“. The Midrash alters it to miMIshnato, from his studies, from his “learning”. At first glance, one might suspect a surprising anti-study, anti-intellectual message, likening study to sleep, in that Midrashic reading. Why is the midrash linking study to sleep?

The Maor V’Shemesh recognizes a lack in study alone, and utilizes with these midrashim in order to present an archetype of study driven by spritual striving. He says that the “Torah spiritual life” is made up of two intertwined elements- study and prayer (as an aside, the Maharal in Netivot Olam A, chapter 7 uses the same Talmudic proofs to posit the centrality of study and praxis, a difference that highlights his very different umwelt). Neither approach, neither study alone, nor prayer alone, is adequate on its own. This is the lesson’s of Yaakov’s development as narrated by the midrashic readings. The Midrash narrates that Yaakov spent 14 years in the “Yeshiva of Shem and Ever”, yet he never had a heirophany, a divine revelation, until this episode, which takes place not in a study hall- but on the road, alone, uncertain of the direction his life might take, a refugee, with only stones under his head for comfort. This situation, which moved Yaakov to beseech Gd for his very survival, is what “awoke his learning” as well, tranforming his years of study into a spiritual understanding, allowing the growth which builds to this direct personal relationship with Gd.

Why was his isolated protected study time inadequate for establishing this kind of personal transcendent relationship? R. Tzadok Hacohen, in his Resisei Laylah (incidentally in a teaching relating otherwise to Purim) provides a reading of “reality” that is relevant to this question. He begins with an analysis of the textual injunction to “never forget Amalek”. This phrase suggests to him that there is an intrinsic connection between Amalek and memory, a negative correlation. Amalek is the state of delusion (similar to the concept known as māya in the Indian religions) the mind distractions which prevent one from finding one’s own way, the kind of nihilist thinking by which one can quickly glide into a total forgetfulness of purpose due to the delusory anaesthetic that “everything is OK because nothing really matters”, the illusion of impotence, that the world is mute and silent, and reality is so blatantly unfair… As R. Tzadok puts it- the rule of evil is in the Galui, in the mute external surface appearances of existence.

The recognition that underneath the mute surface appearance of reality is a living vibrant core, paralleled by the relationship between the external facing superego of the individual, which conceals a living, turbulent set of preconscious processes, is best perceived, as noted by Freud, in dreams. What are dreams, why do we have them, why do we label our visions for improving our world as dreams? How does an “I have a dream” become a force for changing reality?

Let us follow Lacan’s understanding of the dream process in terms of the relationship between dreams and reality. Which is more real, the dream or reality? Lacan begins by comparing Descartes to Freud on this matter. To Descartes, “existence” can be postulated because of the capacity for doubt when confronting reality. All reality can be doubted, but the fact that I am capable of doubting, confirms my existence (yes, yes, that’s what is meant by cogito ergo sum), and from this moment of realization, one can, as it were, “rebuild” reality. After Freud, however, the reality we believe we are doubting is not an actual reality, but the reality we have constructed for ourselves, a reality created to quiet the underlying resistances, the personal tensions in our relationship with the world around us. In a sense, when you “doubt reality”, what you may be most doubting is built out of that you are most suppressing… What we take for our personal experience of reality, explains Lacan, is a construct, created by our mind as a result of the various mechanisms we have within us to prevent the inevitable confrontation with an uncomfortable and troubling “reality”, the unmasked anxiety-provoking reality we recognize in our slip ups of speech (the “Freudian slip”), and in our dreams, when our defense mechanisms are most truly down. These moments, the slip ups of speech, our dreams, arise from the signification to ourselves of our Desire, which we can normally keep suppressed when conscious. (This is the meaning behind Freud’s famous statement, Wo es war, soll Ich werden- “where the Id (desire unmasked) is, there must I go”.) Somewhere, at times in our being, our Desires penetrate our shields, and reveal themselves to us, despite the energy we normally expend when conscious in keeping those Desires suppressed beneath the surface.

Truth, to us, then, is that sense that there is something deeper going on beneath the surface of perceived reality, both in ourselves and in the outside world, that we feel is not the full picture, that there is something deeper that we want to bring to conscious understanding. Lacan states,

“..the true formula of atheism is not God is dead, ….the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious….”.

If to Spinoza the dream is that sign of transcendence, of “God revealing himself to men by truths and figures”, nowadays we can say that it is the individual as well, revealing one’s self to oneself beyond external “truths and figures”.

Thus, to R. Tzadok the illusory state of meaninglessness, as proved by the apparent silence of everyday reality is the modus operandi of Amalek. Deceive yourself into believing that everything, including yourself, is immutable and unchangeable. However, this Māya-Amalek can be confronted by the archetype of one man- by Yaakov- who is the first individual to have his dream reported in the Torah. This is why traditionally Yaakov is labeled as the bearer of Emet, of “truth”, the truth being that of a deeper truth beyond the illusion of things being as they are, so that in sleep, in the unguarded state, liberated from societal norms and expectations, he can become aware of Gd’s warm presence amidst the cold dark universe. Yaakov recognizes that his own actions are guided by a desire to adhere to Gd’s will, and thus beyond his own daytime conscious cognition inhibited by the societal proscriptions of a false reality. This explains why the the text insists on stating that Yaakov “stumbled upon the place” (almost as a parapraxis)- his unconscious and unintentional activities revealed not a constrained ego, but the force of his own life force seeking to become one with Gd’s desire acting out through him, a sense of something beyond his own limited “daytime” consciousness causing him to keep moving forward despite the terrors of his current circumstances . For this reason, Yaakov is labeled as the man of Arvit, the night prayer, the prayer summarized by the Midrash as “May it be thy will that you remove me from darkness to light”- because to him, the “truth” is not hidden in the blinding paralysis of human daytime “reality”. Night may appear as a cloak of darkness, but to those who can sense deeper than surface appearances, there lays the truer light.

The Shem M’Shmuel adds that this correspondence between arvit, night and an unrecognized greater truth is paralleled in the performance of the sacrifices in the days of the Temple. The night prayer is said to correspond to that final stage of the sacrificial rite in which the leftover, surplus, uneaten body parts of the animal are left on the altar to burn, to glow all through the night. Yaakov, similarly, now elevates the “body”, the situated place which seems at first to be mere useless externality, devoid of truth but now is shown to glow all through the night with a deeper truth.

Our emulation of Yaakov’s spirituality is to make the active choice of this route into the night, according to the Sefat Emet. Yaakov chooses to ’step out’ into the darkness, bereft of the merits of the land of Israel, bereft of the help of tzadikim, his righteous ancestors, his safe intellectual world of the “Yeshiva of Shem and Ever” and chooses to rely upon Gd’s responses to his prayers. Traces of Yaakov’s choice are what allow us to continue to find light even in the metaphysical darkness of historical exile- and this will allow us to discover what Yaakov already discovered: that what mankind considers to be reality, will at the end, be revealed as…. a dream- b’shuv Hashem et shivat Tziyon, hayinu k’holmim – when the spiritual “exile” ends we will see that that the surface injustices of pre-redemptive “reality” were a falsehood, an illusion, a delusion. At the same time, we will see that what we conceived and imagined as dreamlike, utopian, impossible, inexpedient, not realpolitik- that will be revealed as the true reality. The dream will be revealed to be the reality we frequently were able to sense, to be tugging at us from just beneath the everyday, a sense of meaning beneath the cruel and unjust “realities” of contemporary existence. As Leonard Cohen writes

You can add up the parts

but you won’t have the sum

You can strike up the march,

there is no drum

Every heart, every heart

to love will come

but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in…. Leonard Cohen, Anthem

Now I wonder, like a refugee. Could it be that the events of the previous perasha are what brought Yaakov to this? Could it be the experience of a total loss of faith in the “reality” of his contemporary society that must have overcome him, when after a life of pursuing the spiritual and leading what appeared overtly to be the proper life, his father, Gd’s confidante, seemed to prefer the violent Esav as the bearer of the blessings? No matter what the ultimate outcome was, as a result of his mother’s intervention, leading to Yaakov receiving the beracha in the end, still, he had heard the words of his esteemed father; Yaakov heard the words of his father, a spiritual giant bound upon the altar by Abraham, uttering that blessing, intended for Esav, in which it sounds as though Esav shall be master over Yaakov, etc. Even if he believed that he has now “taken” the blessings, it must have come as a jarring, brutal awakening to have heard what the holiest man in the world had intended as Yaakov’s fate. This might have shattered any “illusions” Yaakov had that there was any truth or justice in humankind, in the world as he knew it, and drove him out, the first Modern Man, into the uncharted and cruel regions of the Night, knowing there was no solace anywhere other than in the Gd he sensed hovering above his dreams, and the only way to go beyond the injustice of this world was through his dreams, his crack in the dark, to ascend that ladder, to climb upward to the light…

(thanks to Orah Ursula, one of the great souls I’ve been fortunate to encounter in Israel, for the Leonard Cohen reference)

Mark Kirschbaum, MD

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