VAYEITZEI YAAKOV "And Jacob went out."

I said at the beginning of our gathering this evening, that they're really two kinds of going out. And they're both inevitable in our being human. They're both escaping ordinary consciousness.

One is going out of awareness like falling asleep.

And sometimes it's a conscious going out like trying to wake up. Going out of our comfort zone; becoming aware of our habitual grooves and our conditioning; our addictions and compulsions; choosing to go out.

Jacob is a complicated character. His story comprises roughly half of the book of Genesis from Chapters 25 through 50. And he goes through a radical transformation. Jacob is the one who becomes Israel; Yaakov gets renamed Yisrael. That's a theme of the book, renaming, taking on new names, finding new names.

His story is important, being the third generation after Sarah and Abraham, the father of the Twelve Tribes. Jacob is, from the womb, from the beginning, a kind of trickster, a deceiver, he's fighting with his brother. Even gets the name Yaakov because of holding onto the EKEV, to the "heel" of his brother Esav. He's a dreamer; he's a shepherd; he's a builder of altars.

So what does Yaakov's story have to do with us? It's a character I think we can all wrestle with because

אֵין מוּקְדָּם וּמְאוּחָר בַּתּוֹרָה
"There's no before or after in the Torah."

which is very much like something Sigmund Freud taught, "the governing rules of logic carry no weight in the unconscious." And so whatever the Divine Source of our Torah may or may not be, as it came through human hands and has been transmitted over human generations, it has been touched by human unconsciousness. It still has the chance to touch something unconscious in us.

The Chilean psychoanalyst Ignacio Matte Blanco wrote, building on Freud,

the unconscious pays little regard to reality. Processes of the unconscious are not ordered temporarily. They're not altered by the passage of time. They have no reference to time at all.

So here, even in the story of Jacob and the famous notion of Jacob's ladder, maybe there's something timeless and sub-logical or trans-logical going on here. Because Yaakov, as I said, he gets a new name, Yisrael. And the Zohar points out that these two names, on one hand, Yaakov, "heel;" [and on the other] Yisrael, those same letters of YISRAEL, can be [rearranged to read] YESH LI ROSH "I have a head." This one character holds all of the possibilities, from head to heels, from head to toe. He tells a story of what it means to become an integrated being.

From the womb, he's fighting with his brother, like his parents, the parents before him, and all of the generations going back to Cain and Abel, he repeats the drama of sibling rivalry. He has this crooked path, but he also has the capacity of being YASHAR EL. Yisrael also means "straight to God." He can be a straight shooter. 

We meet him this week as he's fled from his brother, at his mother's suggestion, for having stolen the birthright. And in a foreign land, night approaches. He prepares to camp and gathers stones for pillows for his head and falls asleep to a dream that is so powerful one might call it a theophany, a vision of God.

This is the dream of Jacob's Ladder.

But "ladder" is really a SULAM/סֻלָּם. Might be better translated as a ramp or like the connotation in modern Hebrew, a "musical scale." a SULAM/סֻלָּם. Something that goes up and down. Songs ascend and rappel the intervals, notes become rests, crimps, and footholds.


And the angels here in the text are pictured as ascending and descending, not in the other way, not descending and ascending, but going up and then coming down. We often imagine divine creatures are up and out there, but if they go up first, they must be closer than we think. The Talmud Yerushalmi teaches

הקב''ה נראה רחוק ואין קרוב ממנו
"The Holy Blessed One appears distant, but in fact, there's nothing closer."

Our Niggunim, our sacred songs, our prayers, our dreams, they all start where we are. Drawing us up and out to greater heights and eventually bringing us down to earth, the place where we began, the body, this world, yet transformed. Perhaps we've gone out to come back at a deeper and higher level of transcendence, which includes where we began.

In this short narrative, the word HINEI/הנה appears four times. VEHINEI/וְהִנֵּה "Behold!"

There's this ladder, rooted in the earth and its head reached the very heavens.

וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ
"The angels going up and down on it."

The Zohar then also points out that בּוֹ BO/"on it" could be בְּ׳וֹ B'VAV "on the spine," on the letter, on the thing that hooks us from imminence and transcendence. The angels, these sparks of energy, what we're aware of, are connective messengers, messages. Whether they're sublime or neuronal or both.

And then this verse, it's one of my favorite in all of the Torah, so I want to look at it more carefully with you.

וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵךְ וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ אֶל־הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת
כִּי לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם־עָשִׂיתִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ
"Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land.
I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15)

VEHINEI Behold! Wake up! Snap out of it! Check this out! This moment is unprecedented.

ANOCHI. I, the Cosmic I, and the conscious sense of I Am we all experience. We may see ourselves in the mirror aging or a difference between who we sense ourselves [to be] today and in the image we see in a yellowing photograph, but the sense of "I" endures.

VEHINEI ANOCHI. Not only might this be a theophany of something outside within, but like the angel's ladder inside without. This self, this I, this witness. Here I Am.

VEHINEI ANOCHI EEMACH "I am with you." As one of our teacher Reb Zalman's teachers said to him, "all spiritual direction is reducing our resistance to God." All our practices are reducing our resistance to this abiding Self and the Awareness. Can you track that sense right now of being accompanied by Consciousness? Can you court your awareness of Awareness? VEHINEI ANOCHI EEMACH.

USHMARTICHA. "I will guard you," or I will practice this practice of protecting this consciousness. Of being awake. I know how easy it is to fall asleep. Sometimes it's our dreams that wake us up even further. I know the path of spiritual practice is challenging. I will fail. I will fall down. But I will get up. I strive to make this a smoother practice; fall-down-get-up, as Rabbi Jeff Roth taught me. Falldowngetup. Falling up.

BECHOL ASHER TEILECH "everywhere you go," every step in your process, both in your outer journey in your inner process, wake up to the coming and going fact, in all our comings and goings.

We sing sometimes VEHASHEIVOTA EL LEVAVECHA. I'll TESHUVA you. I will help you come home to the body, come home to your feelings, come home to your mind. In fact, we can anchor in every moment on any of those sense objects to return to the land of the soul.

This place. HA'ADAMAH HAZOT. HAMAKOM HA'ZEH. I am, and I will be, and we are going home.

KI LO E'EZAVCHA "I will not abandon you." This speaks probably most deeply to that unconscious and to that anxiety of our sacred texts and of being sacred people, each and every one of us, "I will not abandon you." Now is this the anxiety of God being forgotten? Or of a particular spiritual path being jettisoned? Or is it the Self speaking of how important it is to be seen and known? I will not abandon you. I know this is your greatest fear. I do not want you to be alone. No one wants to be forgotten. Perhaps this is why God says to each of us, "I don't want to be alone either. That's why I made you. I will not abandon you because I do not want to be alone either. I will remain exceedingly, intensely close to you wherever, whenever, and however, you are."

AD ASHER ASITI ET ASHER DIBARTI LACH. "I will remain with you in this life, in your consciousness, in your reality, until I do what I spoke to you until you accomplish what we talked about." Wait — what we talked about?! What does this mean? We've just eavesdropped on an entire dream conversation. God does not talk explicitly to Yaakov, making a request. God hasn't been explicit with us. But perhaps we already know.

Perhaps we know what it is we're here to do, with this consciousness, with this presence, with this, in the words of Mary Oliver, "one wild and precious and life."


or more precisely, he ends his slumber. VAYIKEITZ YAAKOV MISHNATO. He puts an end to sleepwalking through life. He affirms the future and the living reality of consciousness.

ACHEIN "Yes," there is godliness in this place.


ACHEIN is like saying yes to the future. Yes to what arises in each moment. Saying yes to what comes. There's godliness in this place. There's awareness. There's wisdom in this place. There's self in this place, in this moment, in each moment, and every moment.

And now I can practice this awareness of Your Closeness, of your non-abandoning, always-abiding Presence. Your nearness, Your dearness.

But how can we practice? VA'ANOCHI LO YADATI. Not with a small sense of knowing, of clinging to what has been. As Sam Harris teaches, there will be a last time we do anything and everything. There will be a last breath in this body. There will be a last time we see our beloveds. There will be a last time have a child on our lap. There'll be a last sound we hear. There'll be a last thing we think. In truth, everything is like this.

VA'ANOCHI LO YADATI. And this can be liberating. Shaken, awakened, in awe and radical amazement. Yaakov says, Jacob says, we say, "how awesome is This Place?!" Just this. Right here. As it is.

EIN ZEH "Nothing but this." Just this. Nothing but what is happening now.

KI EEM BEIT ELOHIM. Because this moment can be a sanctuary for God, for divinity, a cathedral in time.

VE'ZEH SHA'AR HASHAMAYIM "And this, just this, becomes a gate to God."

Image: Jacques Stella, Jacob’s Ladder (1650)

shir feit


Shir Yaakov is Kol Hai's founder and spiritual director.