Can the Deity of our subconscious be trusted?
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom, Chaverim—
This weekend will be a first for the Bay Area. On Sunday, December 3, Chochmat HaLev and Kehilla Community Synagogue are welcoming and hosting SVARA for a full day of Talmud study. Registration is maxed out for 100 folks, with 20 more on the waiting list. I couldn’t be happier!! Here’s why…
Both last and this week’s Torah portions, Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3) and Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4 – 36:43) are veritable studies in biblical miscommunication. People say “no,” and others hear “yes.” Strange promises are made, no questions are asked. Just like in our own times, our biblical narrative is loaded with people who hear what they want to hear.
For example, when Jacob (a total homebody) is on the run after having betrayed his studly and furious brother, Esau, he finds himself completely out of his element in the wilderness. Alone setting up camp, preparing to sleep solo under the wide-open sky, he gathers stones to serve as his pillow. Remarkably, with no mention of valerian tea, a dram of whisky, or an anti-anxiety drug, Jacob then conks out in the desert.
“And he dreamt, and whoa! A ladder set up on the earth, its top reached to heaven; and whoa!! Angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And, WHOA! God stood above, and said, “I am the God of your father Avraham, and the God of Yitzchak; the land on which you lie, to you, will I give it, and to your seed; And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And behold! I am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you.” (Genesis 28: 12-15)
Thank goodness this is a dream—that unique space of indecipherable energy, images, and dialogue—because I have no idea what it’s about. What is called for here is deep investigation and incisive questioning. Who or What is this “God”? What does it mean for God to give Jacob the land, and also to his (as yet) non-existent progeny (if indeed that is to what “seed” refers)? What does it mean for The Creator “to be with” Jacob, “to keep” him, “to return” him? Is the Creative Oneness who appears in dreams equal to that which we call God in our waking state? Can the Deity of our own subconscious be trusted?
Honestly, I could generate another hundred questions about these four rich verses. And here’s the thing: the more questions we are inspired to ask, the more we should become wary of those who claim to fully and definitively comprehend and understand this text. Indeed, this is watery, floaty, impressionistic scripture and requires our curiosity, skepticism, inquiry, and imagination to find relevance and meaning for our lives—here, now.
Reading Torah with a keen eye, an open heart, a curious mind, and a hungry spirit is training for how to have a conversation with a colleague, a relative, or a total stranger. Torah study should be based on the spiritual practice that is at the core of the tradition: Shema. Pay attention, listen, hear, and hopefully, understand. Engaging with Torah is rehearsal for real time interactions with our peers, friends, family, and neighbors. It is so easy to get lost in the kerfuffle of the past, the old tape loops in our heads, the heartbreak and disappointments that came before; so easy to turn a weird dream into dangerous beliefs, a sense of entitlement, a superiority complex. What if, instead of reacting to unsettling and bizarre statements, we asked good questions, probed each word, and really heard each other, deeply?
As this Shabbat approaches, imagine our sanctuary filled to the brim with inquiring students, asking powerful questions with positive intent and a hunger for understanding. May this Shabbat be filled with psychedelic dreams that move us to generate more inquiry, wisdom, and amazing connection with Torah, tradition, and most of all, each other.