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This week's portion: wellsprings and dreams

I've fallen out of the habit of writing weekly divrei Torah, for a variety of reasons (mostly having to do with limited time), but the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Vayetze, is so cool I can't resist saying something about it. It begins like this:

And Jacob departed from Beersheba and set out to Haran.

The Zohar makes much of this little verse. Beersheba has been a good place, a place of flowing waters. Remember, this is the sacred text of a desert people, so water is highly precious substance. The unobstructed flow of water represents the influx of divine blessing and insight into the world.

The name Beersheba means something like "the well of seven." Seven is a highly symbolic number in kabbalah -- seven days of creation, seven lower sefirot chaining down into creation. The word be'er, well, is a symbol of the wellspring from which all sustenance flows -- in the Zoharic imagination, Shekhinah (a.k.a malkhut), the indwelling immanent presence of God in creation. Beersheva is a place of flow, both literally and metaphysically. And Jacob is leaving there. He's on a journey toward Haran.

Haran, too, is more than just a place name; my teacher Reb Yakov has taught that the name hints at haron, anger or wrath. So Jacob's leaving the presence of the Shekhinah and going down to a place that represents anger and distance from God.

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.

It's intriguing to me that Jacob has this dream after leaving Beersheva. Maybe when he was in the place where spiritual sustenance flowed freely, he didn't need the dream? The connection with God that the dream represents becomes necessary once he's out in the world, headed for the town with the angry reputation. (His son Joseph will be a dreamer, too.)

Anyway, Jacob stops to sleep for the night and rests his head for the night on a stone. Not exactly comfy, but he's making do. I think it's significant that he's resting one one of the stones of that place; by sleeping on a local stone, he's planting himself right there. (To slightly mangle the immortal words of Buckaroo Banzai, wherever he goes, there he is.) I read the stones as a counterpart to all of the water imagery that Beersheva calls to mind. This unnamed location is a place of rock-solid certainty...and yet this is where his ethereal overnight vision will arise. Notice the repetition of the word "place," and remember that Ha-Makom, The Place, is a name for God.

The dream he has there is, quite literally, awesome. Ladder, angels, conversation with God! There's one thing I would render differently than does the JPS translation; I understand the ladder to be planted not on the ground, but in it. It's rooted firmly in creation, and it stretches into supernal realms.

The angels, we read, ascend and then descend. My dear teacher Reb Marcia has asked the question: don't we usually imagine angels starting out in heaven and coming down here to creation? What are these angels, which go up before coming down? And the answer she offers is, these are the angels of our prayers. When we bestir ourselves to pray, our prayers ascend. In return, holy abundance flows back down the ladder into creation and into our hearts. In that sense, we can make every place where we dwell -- every place where we pray -- a kind of Beersheva, where spiritual sustenance flows freely, watering the thirsty earth of our hearts.

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