Degel Mahaneh Efrayim (R. Moshe Hayyim Efrayim of Sedelikow [Sudilkov], 1748-1800), parashat Va-yetze’.
(A)Jacob went out of Be’er-sheva and went to Haran. He reached [PaGa‘] a certain place
… and he took [one] of the stones from the place … and behold [right here!], there was a ladder stuck in the ground, and its top reached toward heaven, and angels of God were going up and down on it…(Gen. 28:10-12)
(B) Here we have the secret [the inner meaning] of qatnut and gadlut (roughly translated
as “small” or “ordinary” consciousness and “expanded” consciousness”), as is known in the
name of grandfather of blessed memory [the Baal Shem Tov].
(C) Veha-hayyot ratzo va-shov: “The divine beings [or: divine energy] race back and forth” [Ezek. 1:14]; no one can stand on one rung forever, but everyone is constantly going up and down [expanding and contracting]. The descent is necessary in order to ascend, for when one notices and knows and feels that s/he is in a state of qatnut, s/he will pray [call out] to God, This is the meaning of “You will seek out YHWH from there [the place one truly is]: u-viqashtem mi-sham et YHWH eloheikha [u-matzata ki tidreshenu be-khol levav’kha uve-khol nafshekha][and you will find him, if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul.] [Deut. 4:29]
(D) Now, this is the meaning of “Jacob went out of Be ‘er-Sheva” [lit., the Well of the Seven]—When the righteous person [tzaddiq] falls from his rung and cuts himself off from his own wellspring, from the Shekhinah [immanent divine presence], which is called [in the Zohar] Bat-Sheva [the Daughter filled with the Seven, with divine abundance and flow], then he goes to HaRaN [here read: HaRoN—anger, inner torture—that state where the soul is parched], and he falls into Small Mind [qatnut].
(E) When he feels [or acknowledges] this, paga’ ba-maqom: he prays to the Ever-present One, ”the Place.” He takes one of the stones from the place [Place?]—something from the place where he really stands—and from there—mi-sham—hecalls upon the divine.
(F) Only then does he dream and see the ladder stuck into the ground, its top reaching
toward heaven. That is, only then does he see that the very descent, by which one becomes stuck
to the ground, is itself a ladder—a gift—by which one can reach a higher rung than
before. “And behold—right here!—angels of God”: he sees that all the righteous/seekers [zaddiqim] go through this very process—ebb and flow, expansion and contraction, up and down; they fall but their fall is needed so that they may rise again.
[G] And Jacob awoke from his sleep and he said, Surely YHWH is in this Place; and I knew it not. And he was amazed and said, “How awesome is this place! this is no other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen. 28:16-17)
The author of this text, Moshe Hayyim Efraim of Sedelikow [Sudilkov], 1748-1800), was the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the spiritual progenitor of East European Hasidism. Indeed, Efraim, as he was called, was one of the primary conduits for the teachings of his grandfather. His central work, the Degel, contains a series of homilies (drushim) on the weekly portions of Torah dating mostly from the 1780’s, followed by a brief dream diary and a small sampling of oral teachings, that were collected and published by his son in 1810. The teachings were originally given over orally at Sabbath and festival gatherings, presumably set in a rich weave of Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, and the occasional Slavicism; by contrast, the text was preserved in print in an often awkward Hebrew, making the interpretive venture both intriguing and challenging. In the text printed below, the reader/listener is invited to find something of his/her own story in that of the patriarch Jacob, who is presented as the prototypical spiritual seeker and master.
On the text itself: At its heart this text is about the process of Waking: limning a crisis that gives rise to the insight that veha-hayyut ratzo va-shov, the divine energy is always expanding and contracting (ff. Ezek. 1:14). To what end, the Degel asks, do we “fall” and experience moments of spiritual dryness? Why can we not remain in perpetual awareness, or in devotional terms, in loving comm/union with the divine? The Degel’s answer is a recasting of kabbalistic ontology, yeridah tzorekh aliyah, “the descent is for the sake of ascent”—meaning that even moments of psycho-spiritual depression may serve as catalysts for insight, and instruments for healing. (I believe this fully, even as I also know that not everyone is blessed with the gift of resilience, and that some of us who fall do not rise…)
We may continue section by section:[A] The Biblical verses dramatize a turning point in life of Jacob, as he leaves Beer-Sheva for Haran, to escape wrath of his brother, Esau; or via another tradition strand, to find a suitable mate among the women from the ancestral home. The text is about to be reframed as a spiritual journey, the shift of geography (from Beer-sheva to Haran) representing a shift in awareness. [B] This sentence provides the hermeneutical key to the Degel’s reading of our passage. He cites an oral teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, wherein life moves between two fundamental poles of consciousness: [mohin de]-qatnut and [mohin de]-gadlut, roughly translated as ordinary or even pinched/occluded awareness, and expanded awareness, “big mind.” [C] Here Efraim sketches the spiritual implications of this oscillation: (1) no one can stay on one rung forever, and (2) “the descent is for the sake of the ascent.” The root of this latter claim is drawn from 16h century Lurianic Kabbalah which boldly states that God’s self underwent a kind of shattering as It moved from Infinite Being to the Creation of a delimited World, a world that is both the object of God’s love and is filled with His now-modulated (restrained) presence. What was grasped as an intra-divine catastrophe (the shattering caused by the divine break-through) was also understood by many kabbalists as a paradoxical, or essential, blessing. In the words of 17th century adept Menahem Azariah de Fano: “the seed needs to rot for the plant to grow.” רק ההפסדה היא הצמיחה (growth coming through its decomposition)… This metaphysical notion was understood in more psycho-spiritual terms in Hasidism: as though to say “there is nothing so whole as the cleft heart. ”Spiritual growth and integration requires the presence of lowliness and heartbreak alongside moments of joy: for “both the whole tablets and the shattered tablets lie in the Ark.” (ff.Talmud Berakhot 8b) [D] Jacob’s spiritual growth unfolds in several movements (1) Crisis: his recognitionthat he is no longer in a state of cleaving to the divine (Beer-Sheva), a discernment that is not always easy to recognize or admit; (2) Jacob’s crying out from that place (Haran, a place of parched Exile, here identified as “mi-sham” from there/outside.).Jacob prays and (punctuating the prayer) takes “a stone from the place,” from the place where he really stands. He transmutes the cry of his heart into a turningtowards, an offering to the divine.
This breakthrough leads to a series of insights, limned in [E-F] via a succession of mystical puns. (3) The stones of the place become “the stones of the Place [the Omnipresent],” opening into the realization that God is present even in the lowliest places: “One can’t fall out of the Arms of God..” (ff. Deut. 33:27) or in a verse closer to home, “God was in this place, and I did not know it!” (Gen. 28:16)
Equally impressive, perhaps, is the realization in [F] that (4) “it’s not just about me” —that Jacob’s movement between Flow mode and spiritual Dryness is an inherent part of the shared human experience. All seekers (and more generally, all of us humans) go through periods of contraction and expansion. The breath rises and falls, so too thoughts, images, sensations, our very lives. We (and those we love) are here, and then not. What is true on the scale of a moment or seventy years is also true of geologic and galactic time. As one hasidic master put it, “even stones are living things. They just breathe more slowly.” The spiritual challenge is how to skillfully surf this ebb and flow, and lift up the moments of occlusion and suffering. How might we turn both the heights and the depths of our experience toward loving service? While spiritual depression can close one off behind a wall of suffering, Jacob’s dream vision paradoxically opens Jacob outward, as he comes to behold those other “angels,” or righteous seekers, who are also going up and down life’s ladder. This means: (5) At any given moment, some of us are experiencing moments of loving communion, and others of us, torture and loneliness. “Life and death…healing and afflictionha-kol be-vat ahat, all occuring at one and the same time.” (Tanhuma to Ex. 20:8)Not only is there ebb and flow, but unified reality is infinitely layered and various.Jacob awakens, “stretches” towards this truth” and for just a moment, holds the astonishing simultaneity of existence.
If only these insights, dayyenu, it would be sufficient. But there is still another stratum of meaning, made clearer only in the continuation of the Degel’s teaching. Reading the term tzaddiqim more narrowly, the Degel is also underscoring the task of spiritual leaders, as if a reminder to himself. Efraim suggests that (and this is point 6) the ”descent” from unitive consciousness is not only inevitable but desirable, nayessential. For the adept must “come down” and tend to the lowly or humble struggles of ordinary folk. And s/he must lift up their longings and help broker moments of ascent/transcendence. In other words: the task of spiritual leadership is not only to cultivate Large Mind and “melt into the divine Nothing” (though it is surely that), but also to invest the world with divine immanence; to shuttle between worlds of awareness, and in the process, to mend some of the brokenness of World and the human heart. And that too is a kind of “ascent.”
Postcript and segue. Our text begins with a moment of Waking/Entry but ends by pointing to the work of daily life [G]. It sets Jacob on the path of steady practice. In the words of the liturgy, והקדשים בכל יהללוך סלה: “the holy ones praise You each day.” This metamorphosis may be grasped by cinematographically following the “cameo role” of the stone, my candidate for best supporting actor. Initially the stone instantiates Jacob’s undeniable, lowly station, the hard place “where he truly stands.” Jacob takes the stone and offers it up in a moment of acknowledgement/prayer. The stone then “softens” and becomes the site of a deepening, the “pillow” for Jacob;s dreaming vision (a state the Degel calls “prophetic,” more awake than his “exilic” waking state.) Finally, as the story continues, Jacob dedicates and anoints the stones of Waking. He arranges them into the building blocks of his altar, creating a more enduring structure that might enable Jacob to “hold,” unpack, and integrate his moment of Waking into the stuff of daily life. And to share it with others.1964
. The locus classicus for this claim is Song of Songs 5:2. “I am asleep, but my heart is awake.”