Rabbi Matt Green – Shabbat Vayeitzei 5781

What are we doing when we pray?

My guess is that this is a question that many of you have asked yourselves before. Presumably if you’re here this morning, many of you find something within prayer that’s worth drawing you away from other holiday weekend festivities.

Among the clergy at CBE, I am probably the least likely to ask the question: What are we doing when we pray?

Typically, I’m the one making the case that culture, or comedy, and making a l’chaim can be spiritual practices. But of course I pray all the time. For what it’s worth, I even like to pray. Over the course of this pandemic, I’ve found that prayer is more meaningful to me than ever before. And beyond the obvious desire for connection, I’m trying to understand what that’s about; what the experience of prayer really means to me; and what it’s good for.

Now that I’ve drawn back the curtain on my internal spiritual life, I’ll share that as I consider all of this for myself personally, I was struck by a new reading of a famous passage in this week’s parsha that approaches an answer to what some of us might be doing when we pray.

As I mentioned a moment ago, and as we heard chanted, Parashat Vayetzei offers one of the most vivid descriptions of an encounter with God in the entire Torah.

Our patriarch Jacob has a dream in which he sees a stairway to Heaven, upon which angels move up and down. And in this dream, God speaks directly to Jacob while standing right next to him. Classically speaking, this dream is one of the defining features of Jacob’s role as a prophet. God appears to him and reiterates the famous promise of Genesis that God will multiply his descendants and all the families of the earth will bless themselves by him and his offspring. We can take it at face value and believe this actually happened. But maybe it’s even more meaningful if God didn’t actually come to Jacob in this moment and his dream was just a good old fashioned, tossing and turning at night kind of dream. Something surreal, perhaps, but not a moment of prophecy so much as processing something on Jacob’s mind.

When last we met Jacob at the beginning of Genesis 28, he was parting ways with his father and brother on a mission to find a bride. And indeed the next chapter is all about the bride he wanted and the one he didn’t want, and the manipulation that lands him with both. It seems safe to say that lineage is something that really matters to this family. And so perhaps this dream of Jacob’s — comforting and spiritual though surely it was — was a working out of his subconscious feelings about lineage, about his parents and future offspring. Perhaps in this dream, some part of Jacob’s brain was helping him cope with the uncertainty of what would come next, insisting that he would be all right in the end. Halevai each of us could be like Jacob in this moment with cues from deep within us that we will be OK, inspiring us to believe that we’ll get to where we need to go.

Jacob wakes up, and says: “Surely God was in this place and I didn’t know it!” He chooses to see his dream as a sign for hope. And suddenly, the mundane place in which he fell asleep becomes significant to him. Vayira, we read, with two yuds. He was shaken by this encounter. So he sets up the stone upon which he laid as a pillar to God and offers a prayer.

What starts as an expression of his subconscious — a dream, rooted in feeling — becomes a conscious expression. Something he says outloud and something he builds. Which is, I think, a good description of prayer. We plumb the depths of ourselves and whether or not we understand it, our prayers give shape to what we find inside, directing it toward something beyond us, which we call God.

Jacob’s prayer doesn’t immediately seem like a prayer. In fact, Jacob’s prayer kind of sounds like negotiating a contract. He says, “if God remains with me, and protects me, and gives me the things I need, then the Eternal one shall be my God. And I’ll give God ten percent of the profit.”

If Jacob were merely bargaining, we couldn’t blame him. The name of this parsha, Vayetzei, means “and he set out,” which implies setting out into a wilderness. He was frightened as he journeyed. And, let’s face it, from time to time, many of us make similar bargains with ourselves or with God when we’re frightened. Some commentators point out that Jacob did not need to make this bargain since God had made a promise to protect him during his dream. But the rabbis of the Midrash Sifrei explain that Jacob’s proclamation isn’t a bargain at all. It’s not even a promise. It’s simply a prayer that God will be with him always. They read his words “the Eternal shall be my God,” as a prayer that he might continue to have a sense of God’s presence in his life. This prayer was a way of expressing outwardly what he had experienced subconsciously while he slept.

At any given moment, each of us are working through dozens of complex emotions, if not more: both feelings that we know are there and ones we can’t yet articulate. And prayer of the Jewish variety — the kind we find in prayer books or projected onto a Zoom screen — gives us a script for expressing parts of ourselves that we might not know how to articulate otherwise. Sometimes that means expressing parts of ourselves that we don’t have much access to at a given time — gratitude, for instance, when we might feel like giving thanks is the last thing we want to do. So the Siddur gives us language to try on. Ideally with some regularity so we’ll be ready to flex the right spiritual muscle at precisely the moment when we need it.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that, “prayer is not a strategem for occasional use, a refuge to resort to now and then. It is rather like an established residence for the innermost self.”

I love that Heschel refers to prayer as a residence. A place to put it all, where it can live outside of us. Imagining prayer as a residence for the innermost self allows us to see it as a place for expressing things that are within us — whether we can identify them or not. Intriguingly, it is in relationship to Jacob’s prayer that he names the place of his dream, “Beit Elohim,” the residence of God. He calls it a residence, perhaps, because it is the vessel into which he can place his feelings outwardly, through speech. A place where he could move from the subconscious, away from the dream, and give conscious shape to something amorphous inside.

The past eight months have felt a little bit like a dream. A bad dream, at times. Maybe even a good dream, at other times. As we’ve contracted our worlds to our own literal residences, we’ve had to get comfortable with the discomfort of our internal lives. So I think it makes sense why prayer has felt even more meaningful to many of us than it was before. As an action to take with all that stuff swirling inside us. As a way of expressing feelings that we don’t always know what to do with. And, maybe, as a way of responding to all of it hopefully and charitably with the affirmation that somehow, God was in this place and we did not know it.

Shabbat Shalom.