Torah Commentary: Perashat Vayetze- Dreams of a Refugee

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When I reached manhood, I saw rising and growing upon the wall shared between life and death, a ladder barer all the time, invested with an unique power of evulsion: this was the dream….Now see darkness draw away, and LIVING become, in the form of a harsh allegorical asceticism, the conquest of extraordinary powers by which we feel ourselves confusedly crossed, but which we only express incompletely, lacking loyalty, cruel perception, and perseverance…. Rene Char, Fureur et Mystere

In the traditional literature, the patriarch most symbolic of the Jewish people is Jacob (Yaakov in Hebrew), who comes into his own in this week’s Torah reading. While more of a passive player in the previous episode, Jacob comes to life- as he is forced into exile. This essay will deal with dreams, the dreams of a refugee. It is not accidental that the first dream recorded in the Torah is associated with a man on the run, who has placed a stone from the road under his head in order to sleep. That dream is the lyrical dream of the ladder which ascends to heaven in which Jacob sees angels alighting and descending, which the Midrash suggests may be read as allegorical for Israel in exile, subject to the rise and fall of nations and circumstances over which they have no control. It is thus fitting that this week we contemplate dreams and exile, and the plight of the refugee. Sympathy for the refugee is a biblical sentiment from the very earliest passages, and that must not be forgotten in these troubled times.
The commentators from the earliest days noted the relationship between place/circumstance and the appearance of the dream. The Midrash latches on to an extraneous word in the verse- “and he chanced upon the place and rested there”. The Midrash explains the word vayifga, “and he chanced upon”, as meaning “he prayed there”, using as a proof text the use of the same term in the Jeremiah 7:16 and 27:18. The Midrash states that there, in that place where Yaakov rested, Yaakov created the evening prayer, the Arvit service, described by R. Shmuel bar Nahman as embodying “May it be Thy will that You remove me from darkness to light”. Exile as night.
A second curious midrash is found on verse 28:16, which reads “and Yaakov awoke from his sleep, mishenato“. The Midrash alters it to miMIshnato, from his studies, from his “learning”. At first glance, one might suspect a surprising anti-study, anti-intellectual message, likening study to sleep, in that Midrashic reading. Why is study like sleep?
The Maor V’Shemesh understands the emptiness of study without dreams. He says that the “Torah spiritual life” is made up of two intertwined elements- study and prayer (compare the Maharal in Netivot Olam A, chapter 7). Neither approach, neither study alone, nor prayer alone, is adequate on its own. This is the lesson of Yaakov’s development as narrated by the midrashic readings. The Midrash narrates that Yaakov spent 14 years in the “Yeshiva of Shem and Ever”, yet he never had a heirophany, a divine revelation, until this episode, which takes place not in a study hall- but on the road, alone, uncertain of the direction his life might take, a refugee, with only stones under his head for comfort. This situation, which moved Yaakov to beseech God for his very survival, is what “awoke his learning” as well, infusing his years of study with the urgency of dreams, transforming study into yearning and a route for redemption.
It is the encounter with the dark silence of reality that is transformative. A refugee sees the world collapsing around them and dreams, urgently, that there must be a better reality where normal life can proceed. R. Tzadok Hacohen, in his Resisei Laylah provides a sympathetic reading of “reality”. The phrase “never forget Amalek” suggests to him that there is an intrinsic connection between Amalek and memory, a negative correlation. Amalek is the state of delusion (similar to the concept known as māya in the Indian religions), those distractions which prevent one from finding one’s own way, the kind of nihilist thinking by which one can quickly glide into a total forgetfulness of purpose due to the delusory anaesthetic that “everything is OK as it is because nothing really matters, nothing can change anyway”, the illusion of impotence, that the world is mute and silent, and reality is so blatantly unfair… As R. Tzadok puts it- the rule of evil is found within the Galui, in the surface appearances of existence which appears mute and uncaring.
The sense that underneath the mute surface appearance of reality is a living vibrant core, which parallels the relationship between the externalized ‘super-ego’ of the individual, the depersonalized way in which we present ourselves to society, and the live turbulent set of preconscious processes within our inner yearnings and desires, is best perceived, as noted by Freud, in dreams. What are dreams, why do we have them, why do we label our visions for improving our world as dreams? How does an “I have a dream” become a force for changing reality?
Let us follow Lacan’s understanding of the dream process in terms of the relationship between dreams and reality. Which is more real, the dream or reality? Lacan begins by comparing Descartes to Freud on this matter. To Descartes, “existence” can be postulated because of the capacity for doubt when confronting reality. All reality can be doubted, but the fact that I am capable of doubting, confirms my existence (yes, yes, that’s what is meant by cogito ergo sum), and from this moment of realization, one can, as it were, “rebuild” reality. After Freud, however, the reality we believe we are doubting is not an actual reality, but the reality we have constructed for ourselves, a reality created to quiet the underlying resistances, the personal tensions in our relationship with the world around us. In a sense, when you “doubt reality”, what you may be most doubting is built out of that you are most suppressing…
What we take for our personal experience of reality, explains Lacan, is a construct, created by our mind as a result of the various mechanisms we have within us to prevent the inevitable confrontation with an uncomfortable and troubling “reality”, the unmasked anxiety-provoking reality we recognize in our slip ups of speech (the “Freudian slip”), and in our dreams, when our defense mechanisms are most truly down. These moments, the slip ups of speech, our dreams, arise from the signification to ourselves of our Desire, which we can normally keep suppressed when conscious. (This is the meaning behind Freud’s famous statement, Wo es war, soll Ich werden– “where the Id (desire unmasked) is, there must I go”.) Somewhere, at times in our being, our Desires penetrate our shields, and reveal themselves to us, despite the energy we normally expend when conscious in keeping those Desires suppressed beneath the surface.
Truth, to us, then, is that sense that there is something deeper going on beneath the surface of perceived reality, both in ourselves and in the outside world, that we feel is not the full picture, that there is something deeper that we want to bring to conscious understanding. Lacan states,

“..the true formula of atheism is not God is dead, ….the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious….”.

If to Spinoza the dream is that sign of transcendence, of “God revealing himself to men by truths and figures”, nowadays we can say that it is the individual as well, revealing one’s self to oneself beyond the harsh cold reality of “truths and figures”.
Thus, to R. Tzadok the illusory state of meaninglessness, as proved by the apparent silence of everyday reality is the modus operandi of Amalek. Deceive yourself into believing that the tragedy of daily existence, is immutable and unchangeable. However, this ‘Māya-Amalek’ can be confronted, as it was by this one lonely man on the road- by Yaakov- who is the first individual to have his dream reported in the Torah. This is why traditionally Yaakov is labeled as the bearer of Emet, of “truth”, the truth being that of a deeper truth beyond the illusion of things being as they are, so that in sleep, in the unguarded state, liberated from societal norms and expectations, he can become aware of a warm loving presence beneath the cold dark universe.
Yaakov recognizes that his own actions are guided by a desire to adhere to something greater than himself, and thus beyond his own daytime conscious cognition inhibited by the societal proscriptions in a false reality. The text purposefully states that Yaakov “stumbled upon the place” (almost as a parapraxis)- his unconscious and unintentional activities revealed his own life-force seeking to become one with God’s desire acting out through him, a sense of something beyond his own limited “daytime” consciousness causing him to keep moving forward despite the terrors of his current refugee circumstances.
For this reason, Yaakov is labeled as the man of Arvit, the night prayer, the prayer summarized by the Midrash as “May it be thy will that you remove me from darkness to light”- because to him, the “truth” is not hidden in the blinding paralysis of human daytime “reality”. Night may appear as a cloak of darkness, but to those who can sense deeper than surface appearances, there lays the truer light.
The Shem M’Shmuel adds that this correspondence between arvit, night and an unrecognized greater truth is paralleled in the performance of the sacrifices in the days of the Temple. The night prayer is said to correspond to that final stage of the sacrificial rite in which the leftover, surplus, uneaten body parts of the animal are left on the altar to burn, to glow all through the night. Yaakov, similarly, now elevates the “body”, the situated place which seems at first to be a cold harsh externality, devoid of truth, now is shown to glow all through the night with the burning intensity of dreams and yearning.
The Sefat Emet universalizes this concept. Yaakov is the archetype of “confronting the night” . Yaakov armed only with dreams, ‘steps out’ into the darkness, bereft of the merits of the land of Israel, bereft of the help of tzadikim, his righteous ancestors, outside of his safe intellectual world at the “Yeshiva of Shem and Ever” and chooses to rely solely upon his prayer and yearning, at this point understanding that mere survival in the cruel hostile ‘reality’ is a most precarious thing.
Reading this text in this light will allow us to discover, even in the darkest recesses of actual and spiritual exile, what Yaakov stumbled upon: that what mankind considers to be reality, will at the end, be revealed as… a dream. B’shuv Hashem et shivat Tziyon, hayinu k’holmim – when the spiritual “exile” ends we will see that that the surface injustices of pre-redemptive “reality” were all falsehood, an illusion, a delusion. The better world we imagined, what everyone told us was just a dream, utopian, impossible, inexpedient, not realpolitik- that will be revealed as the true reality. The dream we sometimes were able to sense tugging at us from just beneath the the cruel and unjust “realities” of contemporary existence, can become reality if we can put that dream into action, “combine prayer and study”. As Leonard Cohen writes

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in…. Leonard Cohen, Anthem

Now I wonder, like a refugee. Imagine Yaakov today, in the narrative the text presents to us. Could it be the experience of a total loss of faith in the “reality” of his contemporary society that must have overcome him, when after a life of pursuing the spiritual and leading what appeared overtly to be the proper life, his father, God’s confidante, seemed to prefer the violent Esav as the bearer of the blessings? No matter what the ultimate outcome was, as a result of his mother’s intervention, leading to Yaakov receiving the beracha in the end, still, he had heard the words of his esteemed father; Yaakov heard the words of his father, a spiritual giant bound upon the altar by Abraham, uttering that blessing, intended for Esav, in which it sounds as though cruel Esav shall always be master over Yaakov, who wants nothing more than a quiet peaceful spiritual solitude.
Even if Jacob believes that he has now taken the blessings, he cannot erase that jarring, brutal awakening to the future the holiest man in the world had intended as Yaakov’s fate. This might have shattered any “illusions” Yaakov had that there was any truth or justice in the world as he knew it, and drove him out, the first Modern Man, into the uncharted and cruel regions of the Night, knowing there was no solace anywhere other than in the God he sensed hovering above his dreams, and the only way to go beyond the injustice of this reality was to become a refuge and flee with his dreams, dreams of crack in the dark, yearning to ascend that ladder, to climb upward to the light…