reflection by Rabbi Daniel Raphael Silverstein
This week's parsha begins with Ya'akov (Jacob) leaving home in a big rush, fleeing his murderous brother Esau. He's alone in the middle of nowhere, and as if this weren't bad enough, the midrash adds that Esau's son, Eliphaz, has recently relieved him of all his worldly possessions.
The sun falls, and he is alone in the dark, left to wonder when Esau will catch up with him, whether he will be eaten by wild animals, or what he will find ahead of him. He has much to fear, and many reasons to worry.
Fortunately for Ya'akov, YHVH shows up in his dream and offers some pretty solid reassurance. Jacob is pleasantly surprised. He wakes up and exclaims: “Surely YHVH is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Gen. 28:16).
Our great French medieval commentator, Rashi, expounds this verse: “If I had known it, I would not have slept in such a holy place as this.”
This one line from Rashi becomes the basis for a classic teaching from the Ba'al Shem Tov. The Besht playfully riffs on Rashi's words and rereads them to produce a new layer of meaning:
If I had known that I was in a state of “sleep” (i.e. constricted consciousness) then the very awareness of my constricted state would in itself have helped me to enter a more expansive state of being.
And so it is with us. Whether we are on a meditation cushion, lost in the wilderness, having an awkward exchange with someone, or suffering in any of the myriad ways we do, it can be powerfully transformative to re-cognize that now, right now, in this moment:
I am in a narrow place. My decision-making mechanisms are not being guided by my highest values and ideals, which are powered by my prefrontal cortex. They have been hijacked by my fight-flight-freeze, evolutionary threat-response mechanism, that is powered by my amygdala.
That response mechanism severely limits our range of responses, and hence the possible range of outcomes. It is a wonderful thing when we are actually under immediate threat, but when that is not the case, it would serve us better if it would make way for the evolved parts of our being.
And now that I am aware that the amygdala is in control, I am liberated from unthinkingly continuing to act as its slave.
I am free to choose what comes next.