Yaakov: Embracing the Exiled Twin through Patience & Compassion, through Mussar Mindfulness
Before we begin delving into the weekly Torah/Hebrew Bible portion/parasha, this week being Vayetzei (https://www.sefaria.org.il/Genesis.28.10-32.3), we pray our Intention/Kavannah that our practice be of learning Torah, Mussar, and the Dharma together and practicing Mussar Mindfulness. We engage in an act of self-care, a radical one, where we commit to learn and practice together once a week to strengthen our middot/soul-traits and souls, to be of service to others and God/Hashem; indeed, to bring God’s Good to others.
We use the first and third Kavanot/Intentions listed below for today’s learning and practice:
An encounter with the Torah text through the lens of Mussar Mindfulness requires that we practice mindfulness of how we are triggered by the text, what arises in us from the text, what we are clinging to, expectations, desires, and aversions.
I also attempt to discuss with the P’shat of the text (not Midrashim/Aggadot/Legends of the Torah). I would venture to say that many of our Midrashim are from ancestors who could or would not accept the text and the experience with the text as it was. They had to imagine it differently in order to live with the Torah, its demands, and what God expected of them/us, and how God seemed to have behaved in the text.
Now, onto our weekly parasha/Torah portion, Vayetzei: the favored son of his mother, Rivka, and a teenager who violated his relationship with his father, Yitzhak, by fulfilling his mother’s orders to lie to him, Yaakov the 15-year-old has fled his raging brother who was planning to murder him for exploiting him and stealing from him his birthright and blessing. Now an exile, Yaakov is utterly alone, embarking on a long perilous journey that is to take him from Beersheba in southern Canaan to Haran in northern Mesopotamia. He will be tested, molded, and ultimately transformed by this experience, by aging and maturing over the 20 years that he will serve his uncle, Lavan, as essentially an indentured servant working to pay off the bride-price.
We encounter Yaakov, our 15 year old ancestor who lacks a level of mindfulness we might desire in a future designated patriarch of the Jewish people. Think back in the previous parasha when his Ima/mother commanded him to wear goats skins and lie to his Abba/father to receive the first-born blessing. He wasn’t concern with lying to his father, the ethical, mature consideration, but rather that his Abba would discover that he was lying and he would receive a curse from his Abba rather than a blessing:
אוּלַ֤י יְמֻשֵּׁ֙נִי֙ אָבִ֔י וְהָיִ֥יתִי בְעֵינָ֖יו כִּמְתַעְתֵּ֑עַ וְהֵבֵאתִ֥י עָלַ֛י קְלָלָ֖ה וְלֹ֥א בְרָכָֽה׃ If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.https://www.sefaria.org.il/Genesis.27.12?with=all&lang=bi&aliyot=0
In this week’s parasha, we encounter the same mindlessness that Yaakov even crashes into God (or God-awareness/Holiness) and didn’t know! Let’s look at pasuk/verse 28-11:
וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃ He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set.https://www.sefaria.org.il/Genesis.28.11
The Hebrew word for “He came” vayifga is a very unusual word to express arriving at a place. In the Beginning of Desire (1996), Avivah Zornberg explains that “vayifga suggests a dynamic encounter with an object traveling toward oneself.” He has to be crashed into, metaphorically or literally, in order to know that God was in that place. A child still, running as a weary fugitive, consumed by fear of the consequences of his greed, God had no place in the awareness of Yaakov before this crash.
The place, Makom as another name for God, that crashes into Yaakov possess no intrinsic value for Yaakov. It is merely a spot to lodge for the night. However, when he awakens from his sleep, his reaction of amazement to his dream of God standing on or next to him while angels ascend and descend a ladder reaching from earth to heaven is unprecedented in patriarchal stories. Like the silence in some of our previous Torah portions, we are to be mindful of Yaakov’s exceptional emotional response. There is something to learn here and it requires explanation.
Yaakov is surprised that God is concerned for him. Why? Has Yaakov begun his long 20-year journey in his growing awareness of his guilt and solidarity despair? Perhaps he began to realize the baseness of his behavior toward his Abba and brother. Perhaps Yaakov has been beset with feelings of complete and deserved abandonment by God and man.
And God shows great Mercy/Rachamim, Chesed/Lovingkindess and Savlanut/Patience in remembering Yaakov. Just as Yaakov is about to exiled from the land, his title to it is affirmed by God. God bears the burden of Yaakov’s slow maturity and eventual teshuva by providing the conditions that will enable Yaakov’s growth. Retributive justice occurs many times in Yaakov’s 20-year service to Lavan, one example is his beloved and the youngest daughter of Lavan, Rachel, being exchanged with the eldest, Leah, on the night of his marriage. And yet his succession to the birthright was also divinely ordained irrespective of human machinations.
In conclusion, strong inner states can arise in us when doing this Torah study, when engaging in this encounter with our ancestors each week. Strong inner states can be a source of turbulence that affects the calmness of the soul. It is our Insight Mindfulness practice to recognize and accept these states, and to know that they are just states that will pass with time; that we need not cling to them or avoid them. It is through our daily sitting mindfulness meditation practice that we develop the capacity to witness our inner states.
It is also our Mussar practice of the Cheshbon Hanefesh journal to develop awareness into what inner states occupy us and cause others and ourselves suffering. It is also our Mussar practice to respond to these internal storms by developing the capacity for inner distancing. This inner distancing is the ability to bear witness without reacting. Mussar teachers, like Reb Eliyahu Lopian, teach that this inner distancing can be developed through prayer; others teach through Torah study.
This is what we have begun to do right now: develop the capacity for inner distancing through our Torah study. And for those of you reading this, we also develop this capacity together through our sitting meditation practice, which is available in the YouTube video embedded above.
Finally, we engage in a daily practice of forgiveness. We attempt to forgive Yaakov for his unskillful and unwise behavior. We recite the following to God, usually before bed:
We honor God, our practice, our ancestors, our community, our Torah, and Dharma. I am honored to be your teacher and to be here together in order to enable offerings like this. We rely on your donations of any amount to offer these teachings and sitting. This donation is called Dana in the Pali, a tradition of Insight Buddhist Meditation, and Terumah in Hebrew, a tradition of Judaism. On behalf of The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar, I thank you for your donation.
We also accept sponsorships for our weekly teaching and sitting that are in honor of someone or in memory of someone, may their memory be for a blessing. Sponsorships are $50 to sponsor one day of teaching and we include your honoree or deceased in the announcements and teaching so that we may lift up their souls and merit our practice together to make this a better world.
Any questions, comments, or concerns, please do be in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. We value hearing from you about how this practice is going for you, how it’s working.
Shalom Shalom Shalom
We practice and ask ourselves:
- Can we bear the burden of our ancestors, particularly when they act out with unbalanced middot?
- Can we extend compassion and less judgment?
- What can our ancestors and the Torah teach us?
- And can we integrate and be mindful of these lessons and what was handed down to us by our ancestors, like Yaakov, so that we can use this wisdom to make sure that we do not cause more harm and suffering?
Podcast Audio Below:
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