The majority of SEFER BERESHEIT, "the Book of Genesis," covers the Joseph Story. This story is necessary, so to speak, to answer the question "how did the Israelites, how did the 12 Tribes, the Sons of Jacob, end up in Egypt?" And this incredible narrative includes sibling rivalry, jealousy, violence, prophetic states, dream interpretation, reversals of fortune, divination, adultery, deception, and ultimately a powerful healing resolution.

But I don't think I'm going to talk about much of that tonight.

When planning our Hanukkah offerings a few weeks ago, I rather quickly decided to rattle off a blurb for the Beit Midrash, our house of study. In the Tuesday night session, which I offered in memory of my father, whose 88th birthday it would have been, I wrote to the community that I was going to teach Kabbalah and Hasidut, or the mystical and devotional strands of Judaism because I figured, "Hey, that's what rabbis do", or at least that's what Jewish renewal rabbis do. Or what I should do.

But when I started to prepare last Shabbat, I left my kids downstairs several times saying, "I'm going to go get a book." I did this so many times they stopped to ask, "what are you doing?" I replied the teaching I'm looking for wasn't in that one.I did this four or five times until I realized what I wanted to teach wasn't going to be found in any book. I think this is true of any spiritual teaching, really. Don't get me wrong, I clearly love books, but the concepts and ideas I'm interested in right now are the ones that live beyond the conceptual — somewhere deep in the body. Somewhere out there in the emerging world we share; in the spark between us.

I heard a master educator once say, "we don't need more textbooks; we need more text people." Text people. People for who the lived Torah of life is an open book. People whose depth and wisdom is a living offering; whose stories and whose tears and whose twinkling eyes speak volumes.

The neurobiologist Paul McClain teaches that "the greatest challenge to mammals is separation."

I think we know this intuitively; we don't need a scientist with an advanced degree. One of the most painful things we experience as human mammals is exclusion. Separation. And this year, separation from each other, through social distancing; separation from our work; separation from our health; and even though we might be spending more time with family or partners at home, for many of us, nonetheless, experiencing separation from ourselves.

The mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 1700s that "all of humanity's problems stem from the inability to sit quietly in a room alone." A fascinating article in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry continues, "the first step in this journey is to transform this devious loneliness to solitude. Loneliness, which on one hand is an emotion filled with terror and desolation, solitude, its cousin, is full of peace and tranquility."

The primal answer to loneliness has always been in our roots. The ability to be at peace with oneself. Our ability to be at peace with ourselves, to befriend the dark alleyways and spooky corridors of our own minds and bodies is the first and only step of our lifelong human drama.

This is at the heart of the Joseph story; woven through the core of the entire Genesis narrative; embodied in the very body of the Torah itself.

Nearly every column of the Torah begins with the Hebrew letter VAV. A VAV is "a hook." As a prefix, when the VAV appears at the beginning of a word, it means "and." And I think this is why I remember overhearing the trivia question being asked on television has my early childhood, what's the most common word in the King James translation of the Bible? "And." But the letter signifies not only a hook, or the conjunction and, it can and very often is employed as the VAV HAHIFUCH, "the inverting VAV"

a grammatical construction that when it appears at the beginning of the word changes the tense of the biblical Hebrew. Now, before I lose you talking about grammar, consider this. The brilliant poet David Whyte points out that we usually lump poetry amongst the arts and humanities, not the sciences, but for David "poetry is language against which we have no defenses. Poetry is the epitome of clear thinking." We must look at the Torah as poetry not law; poetry in the body of the Torah, in the form and aesthetic of Torah itself.

Back to the VAV. VE'AHAVTA/ואהבת "And you shall love." AHAVTA/אהבת, without the VAV, means "you loved" — past tense. Putting the VAV at the beginning, turns it into "you shall love... "you must love... "you will love" — in the future and in the now.

Nearly every column of the Torah begins with the letter VAV and almost every portion of the Yosef story, of the Joseph story, testifies to this—Vayetze, Vayishlach, Vayeshev, Vayigash, Vayechi — all of those words begin not only with VAV, but VAV YUD. VAV YUD/וי at the beginning of the word means "And he." It really means just a shift into the future tense but that's why we get the King James proliferation of the word "and."

To excavate the Divine Feminine is sometimes a challenging task.You know these paltry translations that repeat the alienating phrase "and he," "and he," where are the women? Where am I? Why does this old thing matter? These letters appear again in Yosef's name YUD VAV/יו. And, of course, these names appear in the Ineffable Name. YUD HEY VAV HEY / יהוה the unsayable breath-like name of God — YAHHH WAHHH...

by Nicole Raisin Stern. \And now we often think of this name appearing, as we read the lines from right to left, in linear format, on the horizontal. And I've spoken about this enough, I felt I needed to bring an illustration. So here's this beautiful horizontal representation ("The unsayable, breath-like name of God" by Nicole Raisin Stern, Sumi ink and brush on paper, pictured right) where the YOD/י looks like the head; the HEY/ה the torso; the VAV/ו the spine; and the second HEY/ה the legs. This Is-Was-Will Be impossible conjugation of HAYAH HOVEH YEHIYEH / היה הוה יהיה, "was, is, will be" pronounced YAHHH WAHHH, the Breath of Life, is comprised of a YUD, a VAV, and two HEYs. The Breath of Life, representing gratitude in each breath, inhalation, exhalation. The YUD the smallest letter, the point which has no dimension in and of itself, no Self, the headless head; in relationship with VAV, that letter of connection, that hook, that relationship, bridging.

The Kabbalah I wanted to teach which I wasn't going to find in any book was this awareness that came to me on the mat, in my meditation, and yoga, and in dance—that all of these things that ride the inhale and exhale, all of these points, all of these YIDDEN, all of these YODs all of these sparks are yearning for a constellation, for the VAV HACHIBOR, the VAV that connects. The VAV HAHIFUCH, the VAV that liberates something from a mere sense object in a frozen past and catapults it into a living reality. Connecting the dots, making lines, making associations, weaving conversations, finding language against which we have no defenses.

The VAV heals separation.

This shape is also a Menorah. The Tree of Life within. The inner lamp. The light of awareness.

All of the holidays that appear in the Torah end with HAVDALAH/הבדלה, "separation" or "distinction." Shabbat, we conclude with HAVDALAH/הבדלה; [also] the SHALOSH REGALIM, the pilgrimage festivals. But because Hanukkah doesn't appear on the Torah, Hanukkah has no HAVDALAH/הבדלה, has no end, therefore Hanukkah never ends.

The eighth day of Hanukkah is known as ZOT Hanukkah or ZOS Hanukkah. It's taken from the verse in the Book of Numbers that says ZOT CHANUKAT HAMIZBEIACH, "this is the dedication of the MIZBEIACH, of the altar." Or "this is the education," because Hanukkah, is also about CHINUCH/חינוך, education and learning. ZOS Hanukkah, this is how we dedicate, this is how we learn. And ZOS is "in this." In this eternal eighth day. In the inner branching of the breath of life that follows each and every breath.

So I said all of those Parshiot that have to do with Yosef start Vayigash, Vayeishev, Vayechi... MIKETZ, this week, is the only exception to that VAV-YOD rule.

MIKETZ SHNATO, "from when the Pharaoh ended his sleep." He woke up after having these dreams, having these remarkable dreams, these remarkable dreams that required a dream interpreter, these remarkable dreams that required this miraculous series of events that took a freed prisoner to relate about his relationship to someone in the depths of the bowels of a dungeon in Egypt to elevate Joseph from there to the Pharaoh's right-hand man. "When Pharaoh stopped dreaming" is the name of this week's Parshah. And Pharaoh is usually the antihero, but I want to elevate this Pharaoh, PAR'O/פרעה, to one of the many parts within each one of us. One of the many separate YODs in our sense awareness, something to draw a VAV HACHIBUR towards, a breath that connects.

May we all be blessed with this waking up; the end of our slumber; to save the inner Yosef from languishing in a dungeon; to elevate that to one who travels throughout all the land with great freedom; from rejected outcast to outstandingly powerful; and every step and every gradation between.

The greatest challenge to mammals is separation.

As I prepared for our upcoming Community Gathering I poured over photos of the past six years of Kol Hai. We had our birthday last Saturday on December 12th; we turned six. In those photos, I see the beauty of connection, the healing of separation. May we commit ourselves this Shabbat and in this eternal Hanukkah to communities and practices that heal our separations. May we forge healthy attachment patterns and holy practices of non-attachment. Maybe wake up from lives of trance and torpor and stupor and bring each other into the intimate interpretation of our dream life. For the sake of sustaining our lives, each other, and all life.

As it is written, POTEACH ET YADECHA UMASBIA LECHOL CHAI RATZON — "open your hands and satisfy All Life;" Kol Hai. May it be so.


Image: "Night Constellation," Yaacov Agam, 1979

shir feit


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