Celebrating the Spiritual Levels of Torah

Torah Portion for the week of Nov. 23 - 29: Vayetze

(Genesis 28:10 - 32:3)

Something we remember

Spiritual awakening is never quite what we might expect it to be. It's not somewhere we "get to" at the end of a spiritual path. It's more like something we remember, a realization that is at once absolutely natural and absolutely new. We don't awaken "to" a more spiritual consciousness, we awaken "as" that consciousness.

In this parashah, Jacob begins his adventures in the outer as well as the inner worlds. His initiation occurs immediately after leaving his family, for on his very first night alone, he has a transformative dream.

The dream sequence is relatively well-known. Jacob dreams of a staircase spanning the distance between the earth and the heavens. On that staircase, he sees angels of God ascending and descending, and at the top of the stairs, the Eternal One. The text does not describe the forms he identified as angels, nor the image he perceived and identified as the Eternal. But the consequence of his dream transcended the specific content.

Jacob hears that he and his descendants will inherit the land upon which he had been sleeping. He hears the standard promise given to his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham.

And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. (28:14)

But that "standard" blessing of the three patriarchs precedes something even more profound. The initiation has to do with Presence.

And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you. (28:15)

There is an idiosyncrasy in biblical Hebrew that needs to be appreciated if we are to grasp the nature of what is occurring in this crucial text. In biblical Hebrew, the particle of present tense ("is," or "are") is not specifically represented textually. The Hebrew that is usually translated, "I am with you," could also mean "I AM is with you," and the next phrase would then be "for I AM will not leave you."

Not only is this alternative translation legitimate, it makes all the difference in the world. Certainly, on a surface level, this story reveals a drama of a God "out there" and a human being "down here." But we know that a spiritual text has deeper levels. On the allegorical level, we can understand that this dream sequence is not Jacob's alone, but describes the levels of reality in the form of angels. Those beings, like us, ascend and descend the levels of consciousness, while at the "top," resides the most Inclusive Consciousness.

On a metaphorical level, however, this is an inner drama, and what awakens is the "greater I" behind the personal identity. This is the transcendence that initiates a deeper spiritual quest. It is no longer a search on the "outside," but an opening within to the more inclusive levels of "I-ness," of identity.

The sacred gateway within

For Jacob, whose personality was dominated by the experience of insufficiency (his name means "supplanter," one who seeks what others have in order to make himself whole), this awakening to a more profound identity was monumental.

He was initiated, and he was changed. Although, like all of us, Jacob would slip into his old conditioning, he realizes that there is more going on than he had understood before.

And Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, Surely the Eternal is in this place; and I knew it not. (28:16)

Once again, translating the Hebrew in a more literal way allows us to enter realms within each of us. The Hebrew concludes this verse with, "and I Am (anochi), I did not know (lo yadati)." Jacob awakened to the deeper Identity behind his own persona, his own personal conditioned institution called the ego-self. In this awakening, he is changed. In this awakening, we are all changed.

Jacob further realizes that this I AM connects him to a more inclusive Being than he could have imagined.

And he was in awe, and said, How awesome is this place! this is no other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. (28:17)

In an outer dimension, Jacob had a dream of Presence. In an inner dimension, Jacob realized that Presence as the sacred gateway within himself that invited him into the Universal Realm.

The Unitive I

One of the problems of theological language is that it appears to speak of the Absolutely Unlimited Being as if it is an object in a world of other objects. There's "God," and here's everything else. But what if that "God" actually contains the world of objects, yet itself is not an object?

What if "God" is Eternally Inclusive Subject -- the Universal Subject -- as in, "The Universe opens it's I."

Usually, God is referred to in Hebrew as "He." It is important to know that, in Hebrew, as in other Semitic languages, there is no neuter, which means that everything that exists must be rendered either masculine or feminine. Neuter seems to be an invention of the Greek and Roman mind, which in some ways solves a problem (refraining from the old patriarchal image of a "He" God), and creates a problem (taking God out of the masculine-feminine universe leading to problematic views relating to human sexuality).

But, even though the tense used is masculine, God is actually not a "He" in the same way that a male human being is a "he." When God is asked for "His" name by Moses at the Burning Bush (see Exodus 3:13,14), the response Moses hears is immediate. God's "Name" is "EHEYEH ASHER EHEYEH," I AM as I AM.

Any other pronoun introduces a polarity. A "he" demands a "she," a "you" demands a "me," a "we" demands a "they." With one exception, every pronoun announces a separation. Only the first-person singular pronoun can be unitive. This is the Unitive I that Jacob realizes. He knows that he has tasted something awesome, but it will take him many years to grow more fully into that realization.

It's like that for us all. There are moments in our lives when we open to something more, whether we frame such an event in religious or spiritual language or not. What seems consistent in the reports of such events over many centuries is the sense of "moreness." In such moments, we transcend our conditioning, we step beyond our notions of ourselves, and taste something far greater. We are something greater.

It is already almost a cliché to say that the Gateway to transcendence is within each of us. Such a statement, while true, can send us on relatively frustrating and unproductive paths. How much clearer to say that it's all a matter of identity. Behind our ego-i is a greater and more inclusive I, and behind that I is an even more inclusive, less personal I, and behind that impersonal I is the Universal I.

This helps us understand how it is that our conditioned ego-i can actually inhibit our spiritual journey, especially when we forget its true function. Our ego-identity serves as the conduit between a greater I and the material world. Ideally, the ego-identity functions to support our individual biological survival, and opens itself to guidance from the more profound awareness behind that persona. Too often, as in Jacob's case, the separate self thinks it has to run the whole show.

We might understand a spiritual path to be less a matter of the "what" of existence as it is an exploration of the "who." We are on a remarkable journey toward Self awakening.

Focus Phrases

I appreciate my remarkable personality.
I celebrate the greater wisdom behind my separate-self.
I walk a more loving awareness into my world now.

Writing Prompts

When I am totally identified as my personality, I find. . .
I realized a fuller identity when. . .
If I open to the wisdom behind my personality, I discover. . .

“Torah is the book with no end, supporting our understanding of what it means to be a vehicle for the Spirit of Creation.”

Photo: Mark Reden