A Season of Eights, A Season of Dreams
December 2020 / Kislev 5781
In the spring, seven, the symbolic number of Creation, is emphasized in our Jewish calendar: seven days of Passover, followed by seven weeks of counting the Omer, beginning on the eve of the second day of Pesach. “Pesach,” the Hebrew name for the Passover holiday, refers to the skipping dance of the newborn lambs, the spring sacrifice of the pascal lamb in ancient Israel, and accompanied by the sweeping out of all leavened products from the previous year.
These ritual acts symbolize both the bursting of winter’s bonds and the Israelite people’s release from the political bonds of enslavement in Egypt. Shavu’ot, the holy pilgrimage festival that follows on the heels of the seven-week Omer cycle, literally means “weeks.” Although Shavu’ot takes us beyond the realm of seven's, since it’s celebrated on the 50th day, the focus of the season is a celebration of the winter barley harvest (an Omer measure of barley was to be brought to the Temple and waved as they days were counted) and spiritual encouragement for the healthy gestation of the all-important wheat crop. Over centuries, the Shavu’ot celebration of growth, hope, and welcoming new life became associated with the transformational encounter between the Infinite and the Israelite people at Mt. Sinai and the receiving of Torah—Divine instruction, the fruit of our freedom. But the focus on the barley and the wheat draw that Unbounded Sourcing right down into the realm of the physical, the domain of seven.
In the fall, however, the emphasis seems to be more on the number eight, the numeral shaped like an infinity sign that takes us beyond Creation into the realm of Ayn Sof, the Infinite Source from which the Cosmos, including our material world, arises. Sh'mini Atzeret, a day of lingering in Divine Presence at the end of the High Holy Day cycle, follows directly on the heels of Sukkot, adding an eighth day to the great fall harvest holiday, in which we're enjoined to “dwell in huts” for seven days (in Diaspora, the cycle lasts an extra day). In the mystical tradition of the 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, the whole High Holy Day cycle––beginning with the first of Elul a month before Rosh Hashanah and extending through Sh'mini Atzeret and Simhat Torah––encompasses a divine dance in which YHVH, the masculine aspect of the godhead, seeks unification with Shekhinah. Shekhinah, or Presence, is the name given to the feminine aspect of the Divine, immanent in this material world of separation. In this sacred story, Sh'mini Atzeret, the eighth day of lingering, is seen as the moment of zivug or erotic coupling between YHVH and Shekhinah, a time of great joy that releases a boundless flow of Divine shefa or blessing into the world.
The eight days of Hanukah, a rabbinic holiday not mentioned in Five Books of Moses, mirror those of Sukkot. This festival, marked by the nightly lighting of candles, from one to eight, commemorates the successful rebellion of the Hasmoneans against the rule of the Selucid Greeks in the second century BCE and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple, after it had been desecrated by the foreign rulers. It may have been instituted as a substitute for the Sukkot observances that the priests had not been able to perform earlier, because of the Greek oppression. At this darkest time of year, we celebrate the renewal not only of the Temple of old, but of the Great Bayit, the hidden structure of the cosmos, the Dwelling Place of the Divine, accessible to us through dreams, imagination, intuition. Mystics tell us that in this month of Kislev, the month of Hanukah, we make a spiritual tikkun or repair in the realm of sleep, entering the world of deep, thick, winter hibernation. The ancients considered sleep to be “one-sixtieth part of death.” Immersed in a realm beyond the veils of this reality, we release our consciousness into the vast dreaming spaces in which we may draw on Infinite Resource and allow the Mystery to heal the tattered garments of our souls. We rededicate our hearts, the Holy of Holies in the Temple of our bodies, to service of these Invisible realms.
Our Torah readings at this time of year are filled with the power of dreams and dream-like states, not only those of Joseph the dreamer, whose story we always read during the Hanukah holiday, but also of Jacob. Both these ancestors achieve great success on the material plane, acquiring wealth, possessions, and power. But the deeper layers of their lives are defined in key moments by both dreaming and, in Jacob’s case, waking encounters with the Mystery. We trace, for instance, the course of Jacob’s spiritual development, which begins when, as a duplicitous brother fleeing for his life, he encounters ba-Makom, “by means of the Place,” in a dream, a ladder upon which angels, messengers of the Most High, ascend and descend, connecting Heaven and Earth in an unbroken flow. In that dream YHVH Godself actually stands over Jacob, declaring that the ground on which Jacob now lies asleep will one day be given to him and to his numerous descendants, and that God will be with him always. Awaking, Jacob exclaims, אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהֹוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי: “Truly, God is in this place, but I was not aware.” In awe and trembling Jacob announces, מַה־נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם־בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם “How awesome this place is, this is none other than the House of God––this is the Gate of Heaven!” (Genesis 28:16-17)
Yet, having set up a monument and bargained with God to ensure his own protection and prosperity, Jacob then goes on his way, seemingly forgetting the awesomeness of this sacred encounter as he makes his way in the world, acquires wives and flocks, and spars with his Uncle Lavan, ultimately stripping him both of daughters and many of his worldly goods. It’s only when Jacob heads toward home after 20 years away that his past rears up to confront him. Overcome by fears of his brother’s possible revenge, he divides his family and goods into two camps, sending the women and children ahead, both to testify to his wealth and to signal his willingness to be vulnerable. He himself hangs back, beyond the River Yavok. Here he is accosted by a being––not a chain of angelic presences ascending and descending, but, this time, one unidentified ish, a man. Is this a messenger? Jacob’s own shadow? Or perhaps the same Divine Power that stood over him in his dream at Luz, the Place of Light, that he renamed Beit El, House of God, all those years ago?
Now, in his second defining encounter with the Mystery, Jacob wrestles mightily all night, declaring that he won’t let go until this ish blesses him. Exhausted, injured, but triumphant, Jacob says, הַגִּידָה־נָּא שְׁמֶךָ “Now tell me your name!” (Genesis 32:30) But this manifestation of the Divine is not about to divulge its identity, to declare, “I am YHVH, God of your grandfather Avraham and God of your father Yitzhak,” as in the dream of the ladder. The Presence will not make itself known so directly a second time. Instead, the blessing is simply given, and as the morning dawns, Jacob receives a new name, which in itself is an answer to his query: "Yisrael," Israel, one who perseveres in his struggle with God and with life. Jacob bears forever after the evidence of this encounter as a kind of branding in his flesh, a dislocated hip, a torn tendon that leaves him with a limp. Is the p’gam, the defect, in his left or right leg, in his netzakh or his hod, his endurance or his splendor? his success or his humility? The text leaves us to decide for ourselves. But one thing is clear: if we are to come into the fullness of our lives, if we are to fulfill our transformational potential, we, like Jacob, must strengthen ourselves for inevitable wrestling matches with unnamed Adversaries. Especially in this late fall season, we are asked to open ourselves to receive and learn to trust the messages encoded in our dreams and visions, waking or sleeping. In so doing, we enlarge our capacity for holding and healing “previous experiences in [our] lives that, up until this point, [we] have not dared to attempt to pick up and heal.” Together we can support one another to know that we each “have ‘what it takes’ to return to these precious pieces of [ourselves] – claim them, hold them, and in [our] developing Compassion, help them transform.” (Ellen Kaufman Dosick, “Cosmic Times,” December 2020)
This is the legacy of Ya’akov, Jacob, the duplicitous one, the trickster, the cheater and the cheated, who comes to learn that only by facing life, owning his deficiencies, encountering his demons head-on, will he gain the promised blessing and become known to himself and then to the world as “YisraEl”–– the one whose life is a testament not only to his own perseverance, but to God’s; the one who becomes a channel for blessing, abundance, and love, despite his blind spots, his fears, and his failings; the one who, awed by momentary yet life-changing encounters with the Infinite, leads us all into an uncertain future, bearing the scars of the past, yet blessed.
© Rabbi Diane Elliot 2021