Years ago, a beloved friend sent me a postcard that read, "Do the work where you need to, and soften everywhere else." It has been taped up next to my desk ever since.
These days I have been staring at it more longingly. I have been feeling more irritable than usual, which is a profoundly uncomfortable feeling. A friend reflected back to me that it is almost worse for the person who feels it, than the recipients of one's impatience. And let me say, if any of you have been the recipient of my irritability, I am so sorry.
Blame it on late stage pandemic life and the perpetual uncertainty we all endure. Blame it on the waning hours of sunlight and my diminished meditation practice. Whatever its source or cause, it is unpleasant.
Such irritability has propelled me into a near constant meditation on the 13 Attributes of Mercy. Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v' Hanun...Holy One, full of compassion and grace, can you help me be more slow to anger and quick to forgive? Can you help me soften?
The question of forgiveness is central to this week's Torah portion, which continues Jacob's story. He returns after a 20-year stay in Haran with the hopes of reconciling with Esau, his older brother whom he deceived to steal his birthright.
After a sleepless night in which Jacob wrestles with an angel by the river Yabbok, Jacob and Esau are set to reunite. Their reunion is fraught with anticipation and expectation. Injured from his late night encounter, Jacob looks up and sees Esau coming. Jacob sends his family ahead and bows low to the ground seven times until he is near Esau.
It has been thirty-four years since Jacob deceived Esau. Uncertain who they have each become, the story imagines a vengeful Esau. And yet, in the moment, "Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept" (Gen. 33:4).
וַיָּ֨רׇץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַׄיִּׄשָּׁׄקֵ֑ׄהׄוּׄ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ׃
As you can see above, the word vayishakeihu, "and he kissed him," has a line of dots above it, which is the Torah's way of telling us to pay attention. But what are we to learn from this kiss?
There are a myriad of interpretations of these mysterious dots. One famous midrash (Sifrei Bamidbar 69:2) suggests that the kiss was insincere. That Esau did not really embrace him with his whole heart. Or perhaps worse, that Esau was really trying to kill Jacob by biting his throat. At which point another midrash (Tanhuma Vayishlach 4:5) imagines that Jacob's neck becomes as hard as marble. And Esau's teeth brittle and break.
But of all of these wild imaginings, the one I am drawn to most, is the simple idea that in the moment of their reuniting, Esau was overcome with a quality of compassion and he softened, and they wept together.
As someone who has felt quick to anger and slow to forgive, I am looking to those dots for inspiration. If profound deceit and decades of separation can be resolved in an instant, maybe I too can find myself overcome with mercy in moments of conflict, transforming my reactive grip into a tender embrace.
Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v' Hanun...Holy One, full of compassion and grace, can you help me be more slow to anger and quick to forgive? Can you help me soften? I offer you my personal meditation, that we may each have the courage to do the work where we need to, and soften everywhere else.
Rabbi Ari Lev
In the last few months I have had strange and vivid dreams. The most memorable and disturbing was the night I dreamt that I was on my way to a Kol Tzedek Bar Mitzvah when I realized I had forgotten to wear my suit and accidentally murdered two people. You can imagine the relief of waking to a reality where neither fear was true.
Perhaps you too have noticed a shift in your dreamscape?
We have, for some 20 months, been experiencing the dreamlife of collective catastrophe. This past Sunday, the New York Times magazine begged the question, "Did Covid Change How We Dream?" Apparently at the height of the pandemic in 2020, thousands of people shared their COVID dreams on Twitter, many of them under the hashtag #coronadreams.
"As the novel coronavirus spread and much of the world moved toward isolation, dream researchers began rushing to design studies and set up surveys that might allow them to access some of the most isolated places of all, the dreamscapes unfolding inside individual brains. The first thing almost everyone noticed was that for many people, their dream worlds seemed suddenly larger and more intense."
These studies and surveys represent the ongoing quest of human beings to understand how we are meant to relate to our dreams. Certainly some would claim they are meaningless manifestations of the mind, mere housekeeping of the brain. Important processes but inconsequential in their content. "Science, after all, is about what is observable, quantifiable, testable, predictable, explicable — and dreams are none of these things."
And yet just about every ancient and Indigenous culture values dreams and dream interpretation. And Judaism is no exception. According to the Talmud, a dream is one sixtieth of prophecy (B.T. Brachot 57b). An uninterpreted dream is like an unread letter (B.T. Brachot 55a).
According to Sefer Yetzirah, the month of Kislev is the month of dreams. Shorter days make for longer nights, the sun seemingly asleep in the sky. Animals begin their hibernation. Roots sleep deep in the earth. And so it is fitting that every year at this time we begin to read the series of stories in the Torah that tell of our ancestors' vivid dreams.
In this week's parsha, Veyeitzei, we read of Jacob's famous ladder. Genesis 28 reads:
(י) וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃ (יא) וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃ (יב) וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃
"And Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. And he came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set, and he took one of the stones of the place and put it at his head and he lay down in that place, and he dreamed, and, look, a ramp was set against the ground with its top reaching the heavens, and, look, messengers of God were going up and coming down it."
This is arguably one of the most interpreted dreams in human existence. One interpretation I am drawn to this week explains that perhaps the angels were going up and down on the ladder. Or perhaps the angels were going up and down inside Jacob (along his spine) (Genesis Rabbah 68:12).
Rabbi Jill Hammer writes, "In Kislev, in the cold, we are aware of the warm energy flowing in our bodies. Dreams and visions rise up and sink down in us, helping us understand the past and shape our future" (Book of Days, 97).
Having journeyed into an unknown place and fallen asleep, Jacob awakens from his dream with increased awareness, proclaiming, "Surely the Holy One is present in this place and I did not know it" (Genesis 28:16).
Having ourselves journeyed into the unknown of COVID, may we, like our ancestor Jacob, find waking moments filled with an increased awareness of Holiness everywhere.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.