Sunday, November 29, 2009

When God is asleep, do we rejoice or accuse?

The midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 68:12) opens up a startling interpretation of a well-known verse from last week's parsha

With thanks to Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, based on a class at last summer's Havurah Institute

Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, 'Surely there is God in this place, and I did not know!' (Br 28:16)

[We know of a teaching arising from the diverging interpretations of] Rav Hiya and Rabbi Yanai. One [of them, it has not been passed down which one] said, “Going up and going down [on it”, this refers to going up and going down] on the ladder. And one [of them] said, “Going up and going down [on it”, this refers to going up and going down] on Yaakov[?!]. From where can one say, Going up and going down on the ladder? It's obvious! But from where can one say, Going up and going down on Yaakov?

[This is explained by expanding the text thus:] “Going up and going down on it” -- Afazim bo, kafazim bo, shuntim bo [which doesn't fully explain anything, since these verbs are a bit obscure. So therefore a proof text is brought:] As it says [in Yishayahu 49:3], “Yisrael, in whom I am glorified” [which doesn't seem to explain anything at all! So therefore, we bring the following parable to tie everything together:]

[The angels who are ascending and descending exclaim:] “This [Yaakov] is the one whose image [“icon”] is engraved above [on the throne of glory, as is often taught elsewhere]. We ascend to the Above, and see his image; we descend to the Below, and find him sleeping!” This can be compared to a king, that is sitting [on the throne] and dispensing judgement. Those who go up to the Basilica [a Greek term for “tribunal of a king”, before it meant a particular kind of church], they find him dispensing judgement. Those who go out to the Parvod [a disputed term, but probably akin to “hunting lodge” outside of town], they find him sleeping.

And what do those obscure verbs mean? According to Rashi, the angels ‘going up and down’ on Jacob means that they were poking him, prodding him, goading him – jumping up and down on him, in an angelic version of Hop on Patriarch, in Jonah Steinberg's phrase. Why did they do this?

They come upon a creature made in the image of God; they go up to heaven to check the likeness; they think of the verse, Israel, in whom I [God] shall glorify myself (Isaiah 49:3); they come back down and they wonder: How can this creature be all that if it is asleep? Wake up, and be what you should be!

Yaa'kov, like us, lives in a world in which God seems to be asleep, or distant – because we, creatures who should manifest God’s being in this world, and should take part in the work of divinity, are instead inert – in effect, unconscious.

God in this place, and I did not know!” -- meaning, I am in this place, humanity is here, and we are b'tzelem elokim, but did not know.

One final question posed by the commentators on this Midrash: when one makes such a discovery, that the divine absence is actually a presence, should one accuse or rejoice? Rashi interprets the odd verbs in the midrash as indeed poking and prodding, out of annoyance at the laziness of the sleeping version of Ya'akov. But the Matnot Kehuna (R. Issachar Katz-Berman HaKohen, 16th century Poland), already knowing Rashi's interpretation, teaches instead that the angels are singing and dancing (on top of Ya'akov!).

Renewed realization of the potential of the divine in the world may not be sufficient – it can lead to frustration, a heightened awareness of missed opportunity. To bring joy into the world, awareness of the divine focuses instead on the reassurance of knowing that every element of that world is suffused with sacred potential. Like Ya'akov, may all we be awakened to this presence, in joy.

No comments:

Post a Comment