Reflections on Parashat Vayeitzei
There were three parts of the Torah reading last week that stood out to me. First is Jacob’s dream of the angels ascending and descending a ladder. The second is the revelation he experiences in reaction to this dream. And then third is actually a handful of moments I found really compelling in the narrative of Laban.
I want to start by discussing Laban because we know that he is a pagan. Yet despite this, there are moments in the text where he relates to G-d and acts in accordance to what he is told. For instance, in Genesis 30:27, Laban acknowledges that through divination he has learned that G-d blessed him through Jacob. In Genesis 31:24, G-d appears to Laban in a dream and warns him about how to interact with Jacob. And in the final section of Genesis 31, Jacob and Laban prepare a stone heap and oath to one another, which at Laban’s insistence, is made in the name of G-d (and not in the name of the teraphim or other personal gods we could infer as being part of Laban’s religious practice).
These moments in Laban’s story stand out to me because it often feels to me that in our modern world different religions are exclusively distinct to one another. We have to be either-or-neither something. The idea that we can be both, that we can be pluralistic in our thinking or living or identifying frequently feels dismissed or degraded as this sort of fluffy, feel-good liberal indecisiveness. And while that may very well be the case, the Torah provides a historical reference point for that attitude as well. Laban, for all his character flaws, and for all his teraphim and pagan religiousity, is someone G-d chooses to speak to—through divination, no less!
To paraphrase Jacob in the second part of the Torah reading that stood out to me this week: how awesome is that? G-d is in this pagan place, and I didn’t realize it!
Working the Ladder
This brings me back to Jacob’s dream. His vision of the ladder there is something which continues to inspire mystics of many faiths and traditions. Kabbalistically, Jacob’s ladder is the seder hishtalshalut, or, the connection between the tangible, physical realms of creation and the infinity of G-d from which they emanate. I’ve encountered the literal translation of hishtalshalut to be something like ‘chain,’ in the sense that our existence is chained to several realities. However, I’ve also heard it claimed that the word can be related to ‘worm’ which is an association I’m particularly fond of because of the organic, wriggling life it imbues the concept with.
In his dream, Jacob glimpses a higher perspective of reality, specifically the workings of G-d through angel agents up, down, across, and through many realms of perception. From sleeping on a stone for a pillow, Jacob’s perception transcends time and his present material conditions. He hears G-d and envisions the future generations and wealth he will eventually come to possess. Laban too perceives this through the use of divination.
And that’s a critical point. While in today’s particularly divisive and identity-driven world we may be quick to think of Kabbalah or other schools of Jewish mysticism as being entirely closed to outsiders, historically, mystics have been in dialogue with one another (even perhaps without realizing it), and that interfaith effort has helped refine the practices and teachings of all involved.
In the Torah text here, we are left hints of the mystical experiences motivating both Jacob and Laban. Jacob’s vision of the ladder showing angels entering the material world to do the work of G-d parallels the revelations of G-d’s blessings Laban observes through divination. Jacob’s willingness to heed the guidance of G-d parallels G-d’s willingness to guide Laban. And when they build the stone shrine and take an oath to each other, the ultimate result is the establishment of peace between the two of them brought on by the very divine mechanics Jacob only glimpsed at in the beginning of the text.
My own radical interpretation of this narrative is that Parashat Vayeitzei is teaching us that Jacob’s ladder is not just a vision, but an engaged process in the world, and that this work involves not just Jews or monotheists, but pagans and polytheists who count the God of Abraham among the gods they recognize. While on some colloquial level, the God spoken of by both Jacob and Laban is the same, their experience and contextual placement of this god within their religious worldviews is radically different. Despite this, G-d brokers prosperity and an agreement of peace between them. G-d then it seems to me, is transcending the gods and religiosity of the individual people whose story is told in the text. G-d, the Ein Sof at the head of Kabbalistic, Jewish, and Gnostic thinking, and perceived through my own only human understanding, seems inclusive of and yet also beyond the definitive Godly specificity which either man may have inadvertently chained G-d to in their perception of H-r.
What Pagan Religion is This?
I’ll be honest: I set out to write a reflection this week on what I’m feeling lately with regards to identifying as Jewish vs. Pagan. As I said, our modern world demands strict divisions and exclusive identities. This is an odd social reality to grapple with for me given that my exploration of Judaism and Jewish mysticisms emerges from a very Pagan background.
In the midst of ongoing discussions about many kinds of abuse and drama that plague all contemporary religions—yet for me at this juncture present as prime reasons to go out from my relationship to the Pagan community—I found myself resonating with a few points raised by Sarah Anne Lawless in her own reflections on some of these issues.
On October 20th, she tweeted: “I don’t want to be pagan anymore and I don’t even want neopaganism to be anymore. I think we have created an overly sexualized dress-up fantasy devoid of real secrets when most of us were just looking for animism and folk magic but didn’t know how to research or practice them.”
In the context of longer essays she has written recently such as “So Long and Thanks All the Abuse” and “For Sale: Neopaganism ‘As Is’”, I understand Lawless’ criticisms to be challenges for us in Pagan communities to consider both how would we define ‘Paganism’? and what are the consequences of that definition and the culture it creates? Are we, as she suggests in her tweet, just looking for animism and folk magic? Or, is there something deeper than that which we get out of calling ourselves Pagan?
This questioning is really were I find myself lately. And while I applaud the courage of folks like Lawless to publicly criticize the aesthetic, theological, social, and political failings of North American Paganism in particular, this is not a realm I wish to enter at least for the duration of this post. Instead, I am trying to reflect on what more than a decade in Paganism has taught me as well as how I perceive myself to be growing.
Interestingly, returning to the Torah text of Parashat Vayeitzei, Jacob spends fourteen years working for Laban in order to marry Rachel. In the perfect languages of coincidences, fourteen years is also the amount of time I’d estimate that I’ve been involved with or at least self-identifying with Pagan community. In the more recent of those years, the desire to follow paths I actually feel a response from, as well as my desire to rebuild a relationship with my ancestors, has led me to exploring the ancient Hebrew religion and its contemporary descendants in the form of Jewish identity and Judaism.
Over the last few years in particular, the very North American Pagan-esque ‘accept everything’ attitude of my early Pagan years has given way to an actual theological framework. Paralleling this, I have observed how at times I no longer feel compelled to try and feel something spiritual at all Pagan circles. In essence, I’m realizing that at times I step into a role as interfaith ambassador in community ritual, respecting that others are getting something or seeking something that does not and does not even need to appeal to me in that way. In reading Jacob and Laban’s story, I wonder if either could relate.
Of course, these observations of mine also lead me to wonder: if in those moments I am not practicing Paganism (or, at least that particular flavor of Paganism), what religion am I practicing exactly? Does Paganism make me more Jewish? When the Paganism I encounter is not the Paganism that I practice, I realize the bounds of who I am and what I believe. Repeat for every experience of Unitarian Universalism.
My growing relationship to Jewishness is not to re-write my Pagan history by a revelation of the God of Abraham over it all. Rather it is an acknowledgment of the real relationship I have with this God, and a recognition that the same G-d who speaks to men like Jacob and Laban can find me anywhere, in any circumstance, and through any means (and has done so). Like Laban in this week’s reading, I am at the threshold of mystical immersion in the world’s many faiths—capable of seeing many truths, and liminally operating between them. Like Jacob living in the world of Laban’s paganism, I have my own visions and mystical relationships to rely on when the world around me seems foreign.
The Torah doesn’t tell us what happens to Laban after his oath of peace with Jacob. To most commentators, Laban is a symbol of wickedness and laziness whose misplaced familial devotion and deception nearly uprooted this entire nation G-d is creating. In Laban, I also see a spiritual and family-oriented man (totally a Cancer) who is part of G-d’s plan long before and long after we are introduced to any of his human flaws.
I think if I could ask either Jacob or Laban for religious advice, both would give me similar answers:
Go where G-d leads you. Listen when G-d speaks to you. (Trust that the angels will sort out the whats and hows along the way).
Pat Mosley (NC LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage and bodywork therapist in the Winston-Salem area. His work is rooted in compassionate touch, permaculture, and deep ecology with the resilience of all Earth's children in mind. Connect with him via email to firstname.lastname@example.org