What Are Selichot: Meaning, Prayer & Service
Understanding Selichot: Why And How Do We Say Selichot
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Have you ever felt the Selichot prayer service difficult to connect to? Join Rabbi Fohrman as he dives into the Biblical texts and examines more closely the themes that permeate the Selichot prayers. Connect more deeply to these complex prayers, and enter the High Holiday period with new understanding.
This video is a recording of a live event, held August 28th, 2021.
For more on Selichot, join Rabbi Fohrman and the Aleph Beta scholars in Selichot Demystified.
What Are Selichot?
Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. Hi, everybody. Why don't we get underway? My name is David Fohrman. I actually planned on being on the West Coast; I'm actually on the East Coast, so hence I'm with you a couple of minutes earlier than I would have expected. Just a quick sound test. Daniel, can you hear me okay?
Daniel: Loud and clear.
Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. Hopefully that means everybody else can hear me too. Just a couple of housekeeping notes. You're welcome to put your video on, if you want to interact, or off, or however it is that you like it. Please do keep yourself muted, unless you do plan on participating. You can jump in and say something if you like, judiciously. Especially if I ask for feedback. But even if I don't, you can occasionally feel free to unmute yourself and speak. You can also interact via the Chat. I will just say that I'm not great at speaking and monitoring a Chat at the same time, so I may not be able to see what you have to say if you only use the Chat.
What else by way of housekeeping? I think that is pretty much it. Oh, yeah. Then, I notice we have Beverlyn here on. Hi, Beverlyn. Thanks for being with us from Aleph Beta. She can help with technical issues. If you need to message Beverlyn, you can do that using the Chat. Other than that, I think we're good to go.
Tonight, I'm going to do a little bit of an introduction, some thoughts, regarding Selichot that I wanted to share with you. Selichot are poems pretty much that have been put together over the ages, starting from post Talmudic times, into the Middle Ages. Quite a corpus of Selichot, of these poems, seeking penance, seeking repentance have built up over time. The custom has been to do it in the middle of the night, although, oftentimes, for expedience's sake, that gets moved to the morning. But when we begin Selichot, we often do it in the middle of the night and hence our middle of the night gathering tonight.
What I would just say in general, to pass along a thought for Selichot, which is a thought which was passed on to me in high school by Rabbi Ezra Neuberger, who was a mentor of mine back there, but he gave me some good advice. When you read through the Selichot, the Selichot, again, are very dense and poetic, but you'll find that the Selichot have a refrain. They are organized around some Biblical verses.
The Biblical verses are the 13 Attributes of Compassion, which come out of the Book of Exodus in the story of the golden calf, at the moment of greatest peril for the Jewish people as a whole. In the aftermath of the golden calf, Moses seeks a direct encounter with God, an epiphany with God.
It's interesting that as alienated as the people are from God at that point, it's an opportunity for Moses to become as close to God as one can possibly imagine. He asks God to see Him in a way that He's never seen Him before. God says, you can see My back but You can't see me. "Lo yirani ha'adam vachai."
In that encounter, God teaches Moses and basically says, in moments of peril like this, in essence, this is how the Talmud understands it, I'm going to teach you how to pray before Me. It's then that He teaches him what become known as the 13 Attributes of Compassion. What we call, "Hashem Hashem Kel rachum v'chanun," God, God, the God Who is compassionate, Who is gracious. These 13 Attributes of Mercy we begin to say tonight and we continue all the way through Selichot, all the way through the Rosh Hashanah prayers and the Yom Kippur prayers, and it becomes a mainstay.
So when you are doing the Selichot, the thing to focus on is really that refrain. It's almost like when you're singing a song, it's the chorus that matters, more than the words of the individual Selichot. Though the individual Selichot are nice, but they're sometimes hard to understand. But that refrain is really important. It gets to God as the Source of compassion, which we come back to over and over again during these days.
It's a little bit of that, or the spirit behind that, that I want to meditate with you on something tonight and share with you some new thoughts of mine that have been rumbling around in my mind these last few days. Let me jump in and clue you in to what I've been thinking about lately.
I was looking at a couple of Biblical stories in light of something I've been listening to lately. There's a bestselling book in the non-fiction section of the New York Times Book Review that's been on the bestsellers list I believe now for 141 weeks, ongoing, and it's currently number one, even though it was published a long time ago. It's not the kind of book that you would normally think of as something that belongs at number one of the New York Times bestsellers list, because it doesn't seem to be a topic that has all that interest to folks.
The topic is trauma and the name of the book is called, The Body Keeps the Score. It's written by a Dutch psychotherapist by the name of Bessel van der Kolk, if I'm pronouncing that correctly. Although my pronunciation of Dutch does leave something to be desired, so if I got that slightly wrong or even wholly wrong, I apologize.
I downloaded the book and begun to listen to it in an audible and kind of make my way through it. I've been finding it very interesting. I actually was introduced to it in a podcast. Ezra Klein, in your times, is a podcast, when I first found out about him.
I found some of his theories fascinating, particularly because the issue of trauma and how one recovers from trauma is something which I've talked about a lot in Aleph Beta land, in various videos that you'll find on our website over time. Around this time of year, as I was listening to an interview with the author, I couldn't help thinking, as Selichot approached and the High Holidays season approached, I started thinking about the links and I was wondering about the links between the idea of recovering from trauma, how one recovers from trauma, and what we're engaged in today, what we're engaged in over this time of year, which is really the process of teshuva, the process of repentance, which is really how one recovers from transgression.
I was wondering, are there links between how the teshuva process, as halacha defines it, as we engage in it year after year, the process of repentance, what it looks like? The Rambam talks about it and we have a bunch of videos in Aleph Beta, in particular one called, I think, What is Repentance Made Of? But it's an analysis of the Rambam's approach to repentance.
I was thinking about, is there a link between how one recovers from trauma and how one recovers from transgression, the teshuva process? One doesn't do teshuva from trauma, but are there links?
As I was listening to Bessel van der Kolk talk about this, I couldn't shake the sense that there were some really fascinating links. I want to share with you a little bit of some of this theory and then kind of ruminate with you about this.
Van der Kolk makes the point that when it comes to traumatic events, the reason why he really called his book, as near as I can understand it, The Body Keeps the Score, is he says that until very recently, Western European nations, the United States, anybody educated in the Western world view, has not done a great job at treating trauma. Our preferred modes for treating trauma, people who have gone through terrible, traumatic experiences, whether it's battlefield experiences, or whether it's being abused by somebody close to you, or anything like that, we tempt to rely on perhaps drugs. In the absence of drugs, folks rely on alcohol and talk therapy.
He says that talk therapy, CBT, other kinds of therapy, typically don't have that great success rate in helping people through trauma. Pills are very moderate, not great success rate either. He talks about why he thinks that's so and what may work better. He's pioneered a couple of other treatments which studies have shown do work quite better.
But his argument is that the reason why talk therapy doesn't work that well is that talk therapy addresses the mind, the rational mind. And he says, the rational mind is not where problems of trauma get solved. He says, one of the issues with trauma is that there's actually a divergence that opens up between, what he calls, the body and the mind.
The body and mind are no longer on the same page. Kind of the way he phrases this, at least in my understanding, is he says that oftentimes, when somebody is traumatized, somebody is traumatized by someone who they have a relationship with, sometimes it's a caregiver, especially a child with a caregiver, that a caregiver has betrayed them or has abused them, and what happens with the mind is that we often think the rational mind is being rational. He says, the rational mind isn't always rational. When the rational mind is not rational, it uses its faculty of rationality for rationalization rather than being rational. So you can be very good at rationalization without actually being rational.
He says that a great example of this is when somebody you trust, or somebody you should trust, abuses that trust. He says, what happens then is that your rational mind will kick into gear and will do everything it can to try to preserve the relationship between you and that important person in your life. Because what's life going to look like without that important person in your life? You count on that person in your life.
In order to preserve the relationship between you and this person who has betrayed you, or that person who has harmed you, and you being vulnerable and dependent upon that person, what your mind will do is tell you all sorts of lies. So your mind will tell you that this is your fault, that you deserve it, that you were defective, that if only you were a better child you would have figured out a way that -- there's this whole story that builds up around protecting your relationship with this person who has victimized you.
But then he says that although that's the path that your rational mind takes, your body doesn't buy it. Your body knows the story. Your body keeps the score. He argues that in the physiology of the brain, there are different parts of the brain, so our rational brains are pre-frontal lobe, but there's a much more primitive reign that controls things like our basic appetite or breathing or sleeping, those kinds of things.
That part of our brain which is just responsible for our basic, bodily functions, and keeping us safe, that part of the brain actually keeps the score. That part of the brain sort of knows the truth of what happened and isn't convinced by the rational mind. So whenever somebody who has been traumatized is in the proximity of somebody who traumatized them, or even not just in the proximity of someone like that but in the proximity of somebody who seems like that, maybe he has the same accent, maybe he has the same build, something about them which triggers this memory of that, you'll just go crazy. You'll get angry. You'll get reclusive. You'll respond in this visceral, kind of, physical way.
He also says that that part of the brain, which is not rational, also is not connected to the part of the brain that understands time. So there's no understanding that this happened in the past. It feels like it keeps on happening. So this part of the brain is convinced that it could just happen again at any moment.
He says, one of the problems in trauma is that the different parts of your brain get disconnected from each other and each one is doing its own thing. If the part of the brain that controls the body is disconnected from this rational part of the brain, which is telling it stories and disconnecting from the time part of the brain which is understanding time. One of the things that has to happen is a reintegration of various parts of the brain.
There are various therapies that try to address this, but he says in the absence of therapy that addresses this, what will happen is that people will become -- will think themselves weird, will think themselves crazy for this kind of reactions. Their social group will think themselves crazy. They're unpredictable, they're strange. They'll just burst out crying, they'll get angry at the slightest provocation. They just seem a little weird, and the people become more and more alienated from the social group, more and more convinced that they're weird, more and more lonely, more and more suicidal, and this is the kind of trajectory of someone who's been traumatized in a profound way.
It struck me that -- I'll talk with you a little bit about what kind of therapy he suggests at the moment, but before we get to that, just thinking about the teshuvah (repentance) process and the question about recovery from transgression, I was wondering if something like that is at play also. That the ways that people recover from trauma is similar in some ways to the repentance process, how we recover from transgression.
You know, we're all familiar with the various parts of the repentance process, right? Regret, accepting upon yourself not to do something again, but it strikes me that there's something else that's part of that, which I want to talk a little bit about tonight, which is what Bessel van der Kolk suggests is a possible way out, a possible therapeutic method, but the similarity between trauma and transgression I think is that trauma is when I'm victimized by somebody from the outside. Somebody victimizes me and I'm injured in some sort of deep, psychic way by someone outside of me.
I think transgression, especially big transgressions, things that we're ashamed of that we've done works in a similar kind of way. The only difference is that you're not victimized by somebody from the outside, you're victimized by yourself. You've done something that's causing the psychic wound in yourself, but the trauma is the same trauma. It's just coming from your rather than coming from someone on the outside, but in a way that just complicates things more because the exact same kind of dynamic that Bessel van der Kolk is talking about also plays out in self-inflicted trauma because if my mind goes racing trying to preserve my relationship with me and the one that inflicted this trauma, how much more so is it in the case when I'm the one who inflicted the trauma? I have to live in the same body as me, so I have to get along with me.
So the rational part of my brain will kick into rationalization here and I'll rationalize the actions that I've done that has caused me this terrible wound that makes me feel so ashamed and will tell me these stories about how I can really trust this guy and how this person living in my body, namely me, is somebody that I can get along with. Yet the body keeps the score. There's this part of me that doesn't buy it. There's this part of me that starts acting weird.
There's this part of me that cringes when I'm around these situations, and I think that same sort of brain dysfunction of not knowing, not having a sense of time, not trusting the rational mind to tell me the truth and being very -- getting nervous, getting angry about things that touch on the kind of things that remind you of this transgression that you may have committed, whatever it is. It's all there and the same issues of recovery I think are there for self-inflicted trauma, trauma through transgression when we morally transgress what it is that we believe in is I think very similar to how we recover from trauma, perhaps.
In light of that, I want to bring out something that Bessel van der Kolk suggests by way of therapy. What he says is that -- he says psychotherapists may not know that much about how do you recover from trauma, but the people who know how to recover from trauma are kindergarten teachers. If you really want to understand how to recover from trauma, consult kindergarten teacher. They do a great job because kindergarten teachers are focused on the body. They're focused on soothing people who are falling apart at a very basic, non-rational level.
Listen to what kindergarten teachers do. He says what studies have shown is that these methods really work. He says connection to community is key. Connection to others, physical connection to others is key. What he says is is that singing together, moving together in dance, in coordinated movements with other people, touching other people and holding their hands in song is actually far more effective than talk therapy, far more effective than pills, far more effective than almost anything else in recovery from trauma.
The reason why is because what you're doing is you're sort of integrating the body back into a system. The system is not just this one person's system, the system is this larger chain of humanity that you're integrated back in and you don't feel so alone anymore. You don't feel so isolated and so weird and so outside. You're part of something and it works.
He says that part of the reason why after 9/11 he says New York City did so well in recovering from trauma is because it's something that happened to everyone together. So everyone together -- so there's no sense of I'm crazy if I'm waking up in the middle of the night and crying because my neighbor is also waking up in the middle of the night and crying and it's something that we can approach as a community.
Connection to community is key. It's interesting, I don't believe the fellow is Jewish. I don't believe he is at all and I don't think he has firsthand experience about what he's talking about, but he even mentions prayer and he actually mentions the Hebrew, the sort of the Yiddish word for prayer, davening. He talks about the way Orthodox Jews daven (pray) together. We'll sing together, we'll shuckle (sway) together, we'll move together. There's something about that which is healing and soothing.
It just struck me as so interesting because it's not what we normally think about. In other words, what we're talking about what doing tonight, which is going out of your home and going to synagogue and being with other people for selichot and singing together, you always think about that as ancillary. What I'm really doing is it's my rational mind coming to grips with what I've done wrong, I'm saying I'm sorry and doing all of that. I happen to do some singing, but that's not really what it's about. There's a kumzits beforehand, we're all singing about that. That's not really what it's about. I happened to be around other people, that's true, but that's not really what it's about, but what Bessel van der Kolk suggests is that that is actually what it's about. That's also part of what it's about.
That there's something about that visceral connection to community, which is really important and that strikes me that he's probably right about that. You know, one of the things that always struck me as kind of odd was the fact that of all times of the year the time of the year that brings people together most in synagogue, is the High Holidays. That's when people show up. So you have synagogues that are big places and they're usually more than half empty, but on the High Holidays nobody can find a seat. I was wondering why is that.
Conventionally, the way I've always understood it is well yeah, you know, it's the most important time of the year. Everybody's interested in getting in good with God. Everybody's interested in forgiveness. So they figure, like, their ticket to forgiveness is coming to the synagogue. Then I figured, but why is that? I mean, Yom Kippur is Yom Kippur. I don't need to be home during Yom Kippur. I can be home during Yom Kippur. I don't need to be in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, but it strikes me that probably he's right.
In other words, there's something about being part of a community, there's something about being connected with others, something about praying together with others which is itself restorative, which I found really kind of mind-blowing. So I want to take that thread of a thought and to extend it just a little bit in a way that Dr. van der Kolk doesn't, but I think taking his idea further in a religious sense, specifically in talking about how we recover from transgression feels to me like it does make sense.
To this I want to actually go into a couple of biblical stories with you and take a fast look at them if we can.
Isaac: Rabbi Fohrman, are you suggesting that showing up, just showing up is enough?
Rabbi Fohrman: No. I'm not suggesting that just showing up is enough, but I'm suggesting that just showing up is something. In other words, I think there are other parts of this. There are other parts, the real part, the regular parts of repentance are true. Part of recovery from transgression -- let me put it to you this way. If you think about the parts of the repentance process which we normally identify as repentance, and you can actually watch the video which I did on this that actually takes apart the parts of repentance -- I'm not going to get into this in too much detail, but there's kind of four parts of repentance. Three of them are kind of different from the fourth.
The fourth is vidui, which is admission of wrongdoing to the one that you wronged and the other is essentially staying away from the transgression. Staying away from the transgression in the present by not doing it. Staying away from the transgression of the past by regretting it, staying away from the transgression of the future by deciding not to do it again and then apologizing.
I think apologizing is a way that I repair the trauma, so to speak, that happened in my relationship with someone else. It's the way that I can repair the damage that was created in my relationship with someone else. The other parts of it are ways that I begin to -- I would say begin to repair the psychic wound of my own self. Trying to cleanse myself of this thing that I feel that is sullying my soul in some way, this stain on me. Then I suggesting that part of that, I think part, of that, not all of that, but part of that -- I think connection to community is part of it and is significant.
I want to elaborate a little bit more on that to kind of make clear. I think it's not just connection to community. It's other connections as well. Let me take you into my thinking on that. If you think about the book of Genesis, the two great transgressions in the book of Genesis I often refer to as Goats and Coats One and Goats and Coats Two. So for those of you who have been around the block in Aleph Beta, when I talk about Goats and Coats One, it's the first time goats and coats were used in the Torah. That's the story of Jacob's deception of his father Isaac and his brother Esau, when he takes a goat, slaughters it, brings it to his father wearing the coat of his father.
Goats and Coats Two is the next story involving goats and coats, which is the story of the sale of Joseph. In the sale of Joseph the brothers slaughter a goat, put the blood on a coat, and bring it to their father and said we found this. Meanwhile Joseph is sold off as a slave to Egypt.
So these are these two great transgression stories, so to speak, in the book of Genesis. What strikes me as interesting about both of them also is that curious intertwining of trauma and transgression in both stories. Imagine you're Jacob. So imagine Jacob the day after he deceives his father and deceives his brother. So you say Jacob, how are you feeling? What's going on in your life? So the first thing he tells you about is he says oh man, you'll never believe what happened yesterday. He'll tell you this terrible story about how he deceived his brother, deceived his father, got this blessing and his brother is angry.
That's the story of transgression, but what's interesting is that if you keep on interviewing him you'll find that the story also includes trauma. Where are you, Jacob? Well, I'm running away. Why are you running away? Well my brother is going to kill me. Your brother is going to kill you? Really? Well, that's what my mom told me, that I'm running away. I noticed that you don't have much food. You don't even seem to have many provisions for the night. Yeah, I had to run away really quickly, I actually don't know where my next meal is coming from.
If you interview Jacob at the beginning of Parshat Vayetzei, right before he has the dream of the ladder, this is who he is. He's a man on the lam. If I am giving a first-person account of a man on the lam, I feel abandoned. I don't know where my mother and father is, I don't know when I'm ever going to see them again, just yesterday I had a normal life, then there's this thing that happened and all of a sudden I don't have a normal life anymore. I don't know when I'm going to see my family. I don't even know where I'm getting food, I don't know where I'm getting shelter from. My whole life seems to be falling apart.
Similarly, if you look at Goats and Coats Two, a very similar situation. If you ask Joseph, if you interview joseph on the caravan going to Egypt, what's it like for you to be going down to Egypt? That's trauma, right? My brothers jumped me and I was kidnapped and before I knew it, you, know I thought I had a good life, but now my whole life is up in the air and everything has changed and who knows what's going to happen? There's this traumatic event, but the traumatic event is also mixed with transgression in an interesting way and not the transgression of the brothers who threw him in the pit, but his own transgression as well.
The beginning of the story is "vayavei Yosef et dibatam ra'ah el avihem.' Joseph begins this cascade of transgression by giving bad reports about his brothers to his father and seems to provoke the brothers hatred in that kind of way and so things weren't really so good at home. There were problems in the relationship between Joseph and his brothers. The Torah seems to lay some of the blame for those problems at Joseph's feet.
So you kind of have this very interesting mix of transgression and trauma in both of these stories. I'm interested in how recovery -- what does recovery look like in those stories? I don't know how far we'll get tonight, if we'll get into Goats and Coats Two, but let me at least dive into Goats and Coats One with you and think about this. Maybe we can get into both.
In Goats and Coats One, Jacob has this dream. Let's just talk about that dream for a minute. It's kind of an interesting dream. In a certain way there's some ambiguity about Genesis 27, the story of the deception. I think Yechiel wrote something in the chat about this. I am taking the view that it was a transgression. I wrote about this in Genesis: A Parsha Companion, if you have that and you want to download it or get my full theory on it. I'm not going to devote 45 minutes to sketching it out right now, but you can kind of look at it there.
Even if it's a transgression, it's also a transgression in a very interesting kind of way. Let me just say one word about this, because it also goes to a point of a similarity between trauma and transgression.
One of the aspects of trauma that is kind of classic is that part of trauma is not just that this terrible thing happened to me. It's not just the thing that happened to me. It's also the way in which it happened to me, which is to say that I was acted upon by external forces. I was victimized. I didn't have a choice in this. Somebody did this to me. That's also a tough part of trauma, which is that it almost feels like your agency as a human being was taken away from you. One of the ways of building up after this is to try to get your agency as a human being back in some kind of way. That's one of the things that's hard, that it feels like my agency as a human being, it feels like my choice was taken away from me.
So I was thinking, is there any similarity between that and transgression? At face value, no, because transgression, I chose. I did something. It wasn't like I was the victim of circumstances beyond my control. The whole point of a transgression is that I had free will and this was something that I chose and it was wrong. That's true. There still is a sense in which there's victimization, in a strange kind of way. It's almost self-victimization, in a way.
It's almost like if you think about it -- even listen to the language that we use for transgression. Giving in to temptation. Listen to that language. To give in to temptation. What does to give in suggest? To give in suggests a certain kind of surrender, a certain kind of lack of choice. How is that true? Because if you think about the nature of transgression, usually it is that we end up taking the path of least resistance rather than the path of the moral high road. In some way, that's the way it goes during transgression.
When you take the path of least resistance, in a way you're surrendering choice. You're just saying, this is the path of least resistance. I'm putting myself into neutral and I'm just doing this. If you get a chance, you can read the essay that I wrote on Parshat Vayeitzei in Genesis: A Parsha Companion on the nature of the transgression that becomes Jacob's deception of his brother.
The theory that I argued there is that it wasn't a deception that was carried out with malice aforethought. It wasn't that Jacob woke up one day and said, boy, I'm going to deceive my lousy brother, and this is what I'm going to get out of it. I'm going to extort him, I'm going to get this blessing. If you actually look at it carefully, it sounds like his mother kind of put him up to it. It sounds like he's protesting his mother. But circumstances are conspiring and he becomes almost like a victim within circumstances. So he has agency, but before he knows it, things spin out of his control. Before he knows it, he ended up deceiving his father, deceiving his brother, and his life is in a shambles. He took a certain kind of path of least resistance, for which he's responsible, but it's that which comes back to haunt him.
So I'm also interested in this piece which is not just how we recover from the trauma that hits us, but also how we recover from trauma in terms of getting our agency back; how we recover from sin in terms of getting our agency back.
So that brings us to the beginning of Vayeitzei. So here we are at the beginning of Parshat Vayeitzei, Chapter 28 -- well, the rest of 27, if I'm not mistaken, and 28 in the Book of Genesis. Jacob is on the run. He's running away from his brother, who he fears is going to kill him. He doesn't have anything to his name, and he stops and he literally sleeps on the ground. He has a dream.
I want to look at that dream with you. The dream has three parts to it. I'm interested in what the nature of the relationship between the parts of that dream is. I'm also interested in Jacob's response to the dream. Let's read through the dream, let's break it into parts and let's look at Jacob's response really fast.
"Vayachalom," he had this dream. "V'hinei sulam mutzav artzah v'rosho magia hashamayimah." In the dream, and this is element number one, there's a vision. In the vision there's this ladder, a ladder which is firmly implanted on the ground, "sulam mutzav artzah v'rosho magia hashamayimah," but the ladder then extends all the way into the heavens. "V'hinei mal'achei Elokim olim v'yordim bo," and there are these angels of God which are going up and down the ladder.
So the first element of the dream is this vision of a ladder with these angels going up and down. Okay. What's the second element of the dream? At the top of the ladder is God and God speaks, and God says, I am the God of Abraham your father, I am the God of Isaac. The land that you're sleeping on, "Lecha etnenah u'lezar'echa," I will give it to you and to your children. "V'hayah zar'acha ka'afar ha'aretz," your children will be like the dust of the earth. "U'faratzta yamah va'kedmah v'tzafonah va'negbah," and they'll burst forth north, south, east, and west. "V'nivrechu becha kol mishpechot ha'adamah u'vezar'echa," and through you ultimately all nations of the earth, all families of the earth will find blessing, through you and your progeny.
That's the second part of the dream. We can call the second part of the dream the promise, that this is a promise of the future. Then that's part two of the dream. Part three of the dream is, "V'hinei anochi imach," and I will be with you. "U'shemarticha b'chol asher teileich," I'll watch over you wherever you go. "Vahashivoticha el ha'adamah hazot," and I will ultimately return you to this land. "Ki lo e'ezavcha ad asher im asiti et asher dibarti lach," because I will not leave you all this time that you're away, until I've done that which I told you to do. So that's the third part of the dream, this promise that I will not leave you and I'll be with you.
Okay. Three parts of the dream. A vision, a promise for the future, and then this idea that I'm not going to leave you and I'm going to be with you. What's Jacob's response? It's a strange response. If you and I had this dream, what would your response be? What would you say, if you were Jacob at this moment? Anybody?
Audience Member: Thank you.
Audience Member: Hallelujah.
Rabbi Fohrman: Right, thank you, I might say. That was very nice of You, God. I really appreciate that. Thank you for the promise about the future, thank you for the promise that You're going to be with me. But Jacob actually has a different response, which is kind of interesting.
"Vayira vayomar mah nora hamakom hazeh," he says, what a remarkable place this is. "Ein zeh ki im beit Elokim v'zeh sha'ar hashamayim," this is nothing but the house of God and this is the gateway to the heavens. That's his response. Not really thank you. By the way, there was none of this in the dream. God never said, by the way, FYI, this is My house. This is what Jacob takes from the dream, which is none of the three elements of the dream. It's not the obvious meaning of any part of the dream. So what's going on?
So it struck me as interesting, when I was thinking about this today, that if you would ask Jacob what it is that he's missing at this moment in time. If you would happen to identify one thing that he's missing at this moment in time, what is he missing? Something he had just yesterday but he no longer has it.
Audience Member: Connection.
Rabbi Fohrman: The answer is, home. He's missing a house. It's almost like that's the only thing he can think of. So all of a sudden he's thinking, oh my gosh, this is God's house. There's a house here, and it's God. So hang on to that thought, this notion that the only thing Jacob can think of is this house of God. I'm missing a house, and here's this house of God.
In a way, it's almost like the Psalm that we say over and over again in this time of year, "L'David Hashem ori," if I'm not mistaken I think it's Psalm 24-ish or so. In that Psalm --
Rabbi Fohrman: It's 27. In that Psalm 27, King David makes a lot of requests of God. God, you're going to be with me in battle. You're going to help me with my enemies. You're going to do all this. Then he says, by the way, I really just have one request. "Achat sha'alti mei'eit Hashem," right? He says, "B'zot ani botei'ach," I actually trust in one thing, that You won't turn me away in this one request I have of You.
What is that request? "Achat sha'alti mei'eit Hashem," there's one thing I ask of You. "Oto avakeish," it's the only request I really have. "Shivti b'beit Hashem kol yemei chayai," let me dwell in the house of God. There's something about this idea of a house, of being in the house of God, especially if I feel like I'm alienated from my house, which is very, very powerful for Jacob, and then again for David.
Okay. So keep that in your mind for a moment. Now, isn't it interesting, this is Jacob at the beginning of his leaving his house. He doesn't know how long he's going to be gone, but it turns out he's gone for, like, 20 years. At the end of 20 years, about 21 years later, interestingly enough angels show up again in his life. One wonders if it's the same angels.
He has this vision and in this vision, in this dream that he has, God is telling him it's finally time, of all places, to go somewhere. To go home. To go home back to his own house. So he calls his wives together, Rachel and Leah and his children, and he consults them. They agree that it's time to go.
Now, interestingly, if you think of Jacob almost as somebody who, whatever transgression he was involved in, has also gone through trauma, loss of home, running away from a brother who's going to kill him. It's kind of interesting, his interactions with Laban. He finds himself another caretaker, as it were. There's Laban, his father-in-law, who again takes advantage of him. Maybe he doesn't abuse him, but he takes advantage of him.
Finally, Jacob leaves. When he leaves, he leaves in the middle of the night. He kind of runs away. Laban catches up with him. Finally, there's this showdown between Jacob and Laban where Jacob will actually argue with Laban. They finally part ways.
Then, all of a sudden, here are those angels one more time. At the very end of Vayeitzei, it's kind of little know, but if you look at the very end of Parshat Vayeitzei, look at what happens. Here's Jacob. He's on his way back home, and who does he meet up with again, but the angels. I'll read it for you.
Right after he leaves Laban, "V'Yaakov halach l'darko," Jacob went on his way. "Vayifge'u bo mal'achei Elokim," and these angels of God encountered him. Jacob names the place. "Vayomer Yaakov ka'asher ra'am," when Jacob sees them he says, "machaneh Elokim zeh," this is a camp of God. "Vayikra shem hamakom hahu Machanayim," and he called it Mahanaim, camps. Now, the question is why he called it camps. The Ramban, Nachmanides, says he called it camps for plural, one camp of God, and my camp. We're here together.
What's interesting is not only do we have angels here another time. Listen to this language. "Vayifge'u bo mal'achei Elokim," and angels of God encountered Jacob. For those of you who know the Hebrew, that word, vayifge'u bo, recalls the first time he saw the angels in that dream. Because the first time he saw the angels in the dream 20 years earlier, that same unusual Hebrew phrase was used to describe those angels. Actually, to describe Jacob. Jacob "Vayifga bamakom," he encounters this place, and then he falls asleep there and he sees these angels. Then, 20 years later, he encounters, the same strange word, these angels.
Jacob names the place. The first time around he names it Beit El, the house of God. Here he names it the second time around. He names it machaneh Elokim zeh, the tent of God. So it kind of seems like these two encounters separated by 20 years are very similar to one another. They both involve naming the place. They both involve angels. They both involve the same Hebrew verb, vayifga. So they're both very similar.
But they're also very different. How is Jacob's dream with the angels different from his encounter with the angels 20 years later? How is vayifga bamakom, and he encountered the place, and then this dream of the ladder with the angels, different from his encounter with the angels 20 years later, vayifge'u bo mal'achei Elokim? What would you say?
David: He has a direct encounter with the angels the second time. The first time around, he's sort of passively witnessing them.
Rabbi Fohrman: Excellent. The first time around, Jacob does not actually directly encounter the angels at all. He directly encounters a place, vayifga bamakom. He encounters a place. The angels are completely impervious to him. He falls asleep, and he sees these angels going up and down the ladder. The angels couldn't care less who Jacob is. They're completely impervious to him.
The second time around it might be the same verb, vayifga, but it's vayifge'u bo mal'achei Elokim, the angels are no longer impervious to him. The angels are meeting up with him. The angels are actually directly greeting him and encountering him. So it's fascinating. The first time around, Jacob doesn't actually have an encounter with these angels. The second time around, he does.
So one difference is, direct encounter or no direct encounter. There's another difference, too.
Debby: He's awake.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yes. Awake versus asleep. In one case, it's a vision, it's a dream, it's like almost a possibility, where in another case it's a reality. It's actually happening. Good, that's another difference. What's another difference between the two stories?
Audience Member: Another difference is that in the first case, he meets the place. Here, the angels meet him.
Rabbi Fohrman: Good. So the angels are actually active meeting him, again, where the angels -- that gets to the impervious point. But another interesting thing is orientation. Think about his physical orientation vis-à-vis the angels the first time around, and his physical orientation vis-à-vis the angels the second time around. How are the angels oriented to him physically the first time around?
Audience Member: Perpendicular.
Rabbi Fohrman: Perpendicular. He is asleep on the ground, and at a 90-degree angle these angels are going up and down, vertically up and down this ladder. How is he oriented to the angels the second time around?
David: Face to face.
Rabbi Fohrman: Face to face.
Audience Member: Parallel.
Rabbi Fohrman: He's parallel to them. They're actually encountering him directly. So there's a horizontal orientation rather than a vertical orientation.
Very mysterious. Why are there all these changes? It's very clear that the second story is, at some level, a replay of the first story. And yet, why did the orientation change? Why does he directly encounter the angels this time around? Why is it real this time, instead of just a dream?
The answer I want to suggest has to do with that last thing I just said. It's real this time. It's not just a dream. One of the questions I asked you before is, how do the three elements of that dream come together? There were three elements of the dream. I want to suggest that we now have a clue, perhaps, as to how two elements of the dream come together, the first two elements.
The first element was the vision, the vision of the ladder with these angels going up and down. What was the second element? The second element was a promise of the future, a vision from the future. The vision was, you're going to have a nation that comes from you. You're going to have lots of children and they're going to become a nation.
That nation is going to have a purpose. What's the purpose? "V'nivrechu becha kol mishpechot ha'adamah u've'zar'echa." Through you, through this nation, blessing is going to come through you. Now, let me ask you something. Where's that blessing coming from? It might be coming through you, but where is it coming from?
Audience Member: From God.
Rabbi Fohrman: From God in the heavens. Where is it going to, through you? It's going to all the nations of the earth. So it's coming from the heavens and it's going to the earth, but it's going through you which means where are you?
Debby: On earth.
Rabbi Fohrman: Between heaven and earth. You've got one foot on the earth, but there's a part of you that's reaching up into the heavens. You know who you are, then?
David: He's the ladder.
Rabbi Fohrman: He's the ladder. I did a series on Jacob's ladder which you can find in the Premium section on Aleph Beta. You can go to it; it was a seven-part series, much longer than we have time for now. It's worth listening to. I'd like to review it myself. I said a lot of things in there that I need to re-refresh my mind on. But the central thesis was the idea that he is the ladder. He's the ladder. The vision of what he's supposed to be is the ladder. i.e. him and the nation that he stands for are there to connect heaven and earth, to be some sort of conduit between heaven and earth, for the benefit of the earth.
When is the first time that that happens? I want to argue the first time it happens is actually at Mahanaim. Right there, 20 years later. Because what's about to happen 20 years later? He's about to encounter that brother. What's about to happen is the recovery from trauma, from both the trauma and the transgression, at the same time. What happens by way of recovery? Here he is, he's on his way home. So he's coming home. This thing that he's missing this whole time, home, he's finally going to come home. He's on his way home.
But when he's on his way home, he actually sends messengers. He sends these angels themselves, seemingly, in the very next verse, to his brother in an attempt to meet up with him in Seir. Now, one of the things which we don't always remember when Esau comes to meet Jacob with 400 men is the fact that Jacob didn't have to meet Esau. He was on his way home from Laban's house. The geography is Laban's house is kind of Syria, Iraq-ish. Then you're coming down really through kind of Syrian territory from the north, down into the Land of Israel.
Where is Seir? Seir is way to the south of the that, way to the east of that. There's no way, before there's GPS, before there's radar, before there's -- there's no sophisticated means of communication. There's no way Esau in Seir knows that Jacob is leaving Haran now and is on his way back home. Jacob proactively sends messengers to Seir to alert him that he's leaving Laban's house and that he would like to meet him. Esau comes and he comes with 400 men and he's very afraid. But there is this encounter between the brothers, an encounter which isn't easy, but an encounter which ends successfully with Jacob actually effecting some sort of reconciliation at some level with his brother.
It seems like, in taking these steps, in finally leaving Laban's house, in saying no to this guy who's been taking advantage of him for 20 years and in being able to set up his own life and to take the agency, so to speak, of saying this is what I'm doing now, and I'm going to reconcile with my brother now, and I'm going to find a way to try to put these pieces of my life back together. He is doing what he needs to do. He's beginning to take these first steps of actualizing this dream of connecting heaven and earth. This is the morally virtuous thing to do. This is what God would want you to do. This is taking a Godly ideal, an ideal in the heavens, and actualizing it on the earth. It's being a ladder that connects heaven and earth.
If so, then there's an interesting, kind of trippy way of seeing the change in orientation in the second story from the first. Why is it that the angels are impervious to Jacob the first time around, and yet they encounter him for the second time around? The answer might have to do, for the same reason that the angels are oriented vertically the first time around, and horizontally the second time around, which is, what was the meaning of the dream? The meaning of the dream is that you're supposed to be the ladder. The promise, the destiny that you have is, try to be that ladder. The first moment that he's that ladder is 20 years later.
If I'm the ladder, then how am I going to start seeing the angels? Do you understand? If I am the ladder, how does my orientation change? I don't see the angels moving vertically anymore. I'm the ladder. I see the angels coming up right towards me, right connecting me. I just became part of the story. I'm no longer impervious to the story. I am the story. There's a horizontal orientation. I'm the one that is the ladder. Everything changes. Not because the scene changes, but because my position in the scene changes. I'm no longer a bystander; I am the beginning of the ladder.
So it may well be that the first and second elements of the dream are one and the same.
Debby: So he needed time to heal?
Rabbi Fohrman: He is healing, whether or not he's trying to heal. My next question is, so -- yes?
Cynthia: Rabbi? I have three questions about the story of Jacob that kind of are getting in the -- even though every point you're making, I'm loving. I have these questions then. So the first is, how do we account for the fact that God's will was being done through Jacob's and Rebecca's deception of Isaac? And so therefore was it really a bad thing for him to do those things? Second, was there a chance that Esau and his 400 men were not premeditating an attack on Jacob, but perhaps were just being precautionary? And then will all of this then, if Jacob's encounter with Esau was a positive healing of trauma, why is Esau seen in our tradition as evil, even after that?
Rabbi Fohrman: Okay. Good. If I can, I'm going to wait until the end to try to address them, because I want to be able to let people go to Selichot programs and brings us to the end. But I hear the questions. Some of them, I've talked about in various different things in Aleph Beta, which I can point you to. Some of them, I'll try to address a little bit at the end. But thanks for that.
In the meantime, just to try to bring this together, and then maybe I'll stick around a little bit more for questions and comments and discussion. Let me get to what I consider the third element here in the dream.
The third element of the dream is a promise about now. What is that promise? That promise is God essentially saying to him -- listen to what he says. Everything I've told you before this, element two of the dream, is all about the future. But element three of the dream is all about now. "Hinei anochi imach," I'm with you. "U'shemarticha b'chol asher teileich," I'm watching over you. "Vahashivoticha el ha'adamah hazot," and I'll bring you back, eventually, to this place, "ki lo e'ezavcha ad asher im asiti," because I will not leave you behind.
Jacob's going into exile. He's facing these bitter fruits of this deception of what it is that he just did. Those bitter fruits, interestingly, are not fruits that God shields him from. Jacob will encounter Laban. He'll be deceived by Laban. The way he'll be deceived by Laban echoes the way he deceived his own brother. He ends up loving one of two siblings, one of two sisters, just as his father loved one of two siblings. He ends up getting deceived as to which one is which when he can't tell what's going on, the same way his father got deceived as to which one was which without being able to know what's going on.
When he calls Laban on it and says, why did you do this? Laban says, "Lo yei'aseh kein bimkomeinu latet et hatze'irah lifnei habechirah," we don't do it the way you do it back at home, to give the younger before the older. Maybe that's the way you do it, but it's not the way we do it. His loss of Rachel harks back to his own deception of his brothers. History is working in a way that that will bring bitter consequences to his own life, from consequences that he sowed with his own actions. God doesn't shield him from those consequences.
He's on his way to those consequences. But even as he's on his way to those consequences, God does say something to him. What He says is, I'm going to be with you. I'll be with you this whole way. I'll be with you this whole time, "Ki lo e'ezavcha ad asher im asiti et asher dibarti lach." I will not leave you until this promise is fulfilled. It strikes me that that's a very powerful thing. What God is saying is that I won't necessarily shield you as a parent from the fruits of transgression. Exile is a real thing. You're going into exile for 20 years. And yet, I will be with you. I'll be with you the whole time. I'll go down with you into exile.
I wonder, my intuition is, if you would ask Jacob at the end, what ultimately gives him the strength? What gives him the strength to pull out of this? What gives him the strength to finally be able to go home, to finally have that -- I think part of this is that sense of connection to God. In other words, if you think about -- going back to Bessel Van der Kolk's theory, going back to what we were talking about of connection to community, it seems to me that one of the ways that one can heal, in a way, from both trauma but also transgression, I believe is a sense of connection to God.
In other words, what we do this time of year in shul, what we do when we go to synagogue, we're not just getting together at the JCC. We're not getting together and exercising. We're not getting together and singing in a choir in some place. We're actually getting together for the purpose of prayer. We're connecting to God. We're connected to God as a community and we're moving together as a community. There's that connection to community in connection with God.
I think that's not insignificant. In other words, when you feel traumatized, when you feel abandoned or when you feel like you've sinned, and there's this feeling like ugh, I can't even recognize myself. Like, who am I? Am I really worthless? How do you get over those feelings? One is connection to community.
Interestingly enough, by the way, one of the things that we say on Yom Kippur night, going into Yom Kippur, is we say "Al da'at hamakom v'al da'at hakahal." We formally declare that "Anu matirim l'hitpallel im ha'avaryanim." We declare that it is permitted to pray with transgressors. We're talking about ourselves. What we're really saying is like, look, we're all on the same boat. That's okay. There's that connection in community. But it's not just connection in community. Anu matirim l'hitpallel im ha'avaryanim. We're saying that it's okay and right for us, as a community of transgressors, to approach God. That that's not ridiculous. That we can have the temerity to approach God and be in conversation with Him because at some level, there's a sense that like with Jacob, that there's this promise which is that God doesn't leave us.
That sense of connection to this Almighty, transcendent being, I think is part of this larger sense of connection to community, connection to God which, if we can tap into that, can begin to give us the strength to emerge and to do all the other parts of reclaiming our agency and rising to the promise of what we can be.
I want to close with one, kind of, final meditation on this with Goats and Coats Two, if I can. You know, Goats and Coats Two, the story of Joseph and his brothers, is also a story of exile. Except this time, the exile is an exile, he's going down to Egypt, Joseph, and he's going to be there -- or we're all going to be there for hundreds of years. Two hundred years, to be precise, not just the 20 years of Jacob's life.
There's a couple interesting videos on Aleph Beta on this. I'm not going to get too much into them right now, but let me just say that -- I think it was a Purim video that we did on the viceroy, having to do with a comparison of Haman and Mordechai's life that touched on these things. If you can, you can take a look at it.
I want to take you into the moment that I think is the greatest moment of redemption for Joseph in this story. If Joseph is traumatized from the story of the sale of Joseph, when does he begin to kind of work through that trauma? I think the answer to that, interestingly, is in Chapter 39. It's in the story of his encounter with the wife of Potiphar. Let me take you into that story, read a little piece of this, then I'll send you on your way for the rest of Selichot.
So let me put this in English and Hebrew together. So here is Joseph in the house of Potiphar. So what's interesting is -- oh, I'm sorry. I meant to do one thing with you before I showed this to you. Here was the one thing I wanted to do with you. So here's the thing. Isn't it interesting that Joseph has a dream, too, just like his father did? Remember the dream that Joseph has about these standing sheaves of wheat? He and his brothers, they're all in the fields and then he has the sheaf of wheat that stands up straight, and all the brothers' sheaves of wheat bow to him.
Do you see any connection between Joseph's dream and Jacob, his father's dream? The dream that you and I have been discussing? What's similar about the dreams?
David: Each one is represented by something vertical.
Rabbi Fohrman: Each one is represented by something vertical.
Audience Member: And then it bows down the other way.
Rabbi Fohrman: Good. So in both cases, like in Jacob's dream there's something --
Nassan: They both touch the ground.
Rabbi Fohrman: They both touch the ground. There's something vertical that touches the ground and reaches into the heavens in both dreams. Moreover, in the first dream, in Jacob's dream, in that dream he's told about all of his children that will burst forth on the ground north, south, east, and west. So there's something vertical, and then there's all this stuff on the ground going north, south, east, and west. Similarly, in Joseph's dream there's something vertical, the standing sheaf. There are all these brothers who are bowing to him, north, south, east, and west, that are arranged horizontally on the bottom at the ground. So the visuals of the dream are very much the same.
It's not just the visuals of the dream. It's also the language of the dream because when it comes to the ladder, it's called "V'hinei sulam mutzav artzah," there was a ladder that was established at the bottom. God was nitzav alav, God was standing above it, standing in an established way. The word nitzav and mutzav. That word also shows up in dream number two. In dream number two, when Joseph tells over the dream, he says "Kamah alumati v'gam nitzavah," my sheaf stood up straight in an established way. The exact same language for the established sheaf as the established ladder of Jacob's dream.
It really seems like there's something about Joseph's dream that's echoing his father's dream. Interesting. Why? Well, if we're right about the meaning of Jacob's dream, is there something about Joseph's dream that carries this forward in time? The meaning of Jacob's dream is, I'm supposed to be the progenitor of a nation that connects heaven and earth. I'm supposed to be a vehicle that connects heaven and earth. Through me, blessing is supposed to come to all the families of the earth.
Well, what if I asked you okay, when's the first time in the history of Israel that through someone in Israel, blessing really did come to all the families of the earth? The answer would probably be Joseph. He literally saves the civilized world from famine. So in this dream that he has, is it a coincidence that he's a sheaf of wheat? I mean, the whole way that he saves everybody is through this wheat. He is this independent guy, standing up straight, that has this relationship to wheat. Everyone else is bowing before him because they're all desperate for wheat. All of a sudden the ladder, in dream number one for Jacob, has become the sheaf of wheat in dream number two. It's as if it's the same dream, but now it has an organic version instead of a ladder version. There's this sheaf of wheat. It's coming true.
When Joseph is able to connect to the heavens and understand the meaning of Pharaoh's dream and to bring that down to the earth and to be a servant to Pharaoh that with some degree of righteousness, figures out the way to be able to handle and administrate all of this, so he's connecting heaven and earth and bringing blessing to the earth.
That's kind of interesting. But now let's say, okay, but if it's true that Joseph's dream echoes Jacob's dream in element number one and in element number two, what about element number three? In other words, if the vision of the dream is the same, if the meaning of the dream is the same, which was element number two, you're going to be this great nation that connects heaven and earth. What about the third thing, the third part of the dream? Did Joseph have memories of that, too? In other words, if you would interview Joseph, does Joseph see himself in some way as embodying that dream? What about this part about God not leaving him?
It's an interesting question. For a guy who's sold off as a slave, for a guy who leaves home, for a guy whose life is completely upended. One of the things, interestingly, that seems to keep Joseph sane that whole time, is the sense that God hasn't left him. This faith that -- where did he get that sense? Maybe, I'm wondering, if it was his father's dream. If he sees himself as continuing this legacy and understanding that this promise wasn't an individual promise made to his father, but it was a promise made to the nation. It was a promise to anyone that's able to become that ladder. He says, I'm not leaving you. I'm going to invest in you.
So therefore, Joseph in prison, Joseph to Pharaoh, what's the first thing Joseph says to Pharaoh when (inaudible 01:19:49) prison for seven years? He says, it's not me, it's God. God's going to interpret your dream. It ain't me. God's with me. It's not about me, it's about God. He has this sense that God is with him. I'm wondering if it's part of what gives him his sense of sanity.
So I want to kind of close with one thought relating to that, which is if you look in the story of Potiphar. I think the story of Potiphar, a number of years earlier, is the beginning of the redemption, really the beginning of recovery from both trauma and transgression from Joseph. It happens at once. Let's talk about the trauma and let's talk about the transgression.
The transgression first. If you're Joseph, what was your transgression? You brought back bad reports of your brothers. You tried to ingratiate yourself with Dad at the expense of your brothers. It came back and it blew up in your face. That's the transgression.
Okay, great. Now let's talk about the trauma. I'm kidnapped. My brothers, they jumped me, they stripped me of my clothes, they threw me in this pit. It looked like I was going to die. Who knew when I was ever going to get out of there. That's the trauma.
Okay. Now let's talk about the story of Potiphar. The interesting thing about the story of Potiphar is it begins in a way that kind of reminds you -- it's almost like, if you've seen the movie Groundhog Day, it almost reminds you of a second time around in the Joseph story. Because the relationship that Joseph ends up setting up with Potiphar is very similar to the relationship he had with his own dad. It reminds him of home, even though he's very far away from home, because what happens? Potiphar is in charge of the household, but Potiphar slowly gains trust in Joseph. Joseph becomes second in charge of the whole house, the same way that he was kind of second in charge at home. Plus he's got some colleagues that he has a testy relationship with. He had a testy relationship with his brothers; he ends up having kind of a testy relationship with the wife of Potiphar.
What happens? The wife of Potiphar decides she wants to seduce him one day, so she talks to him. She tries to seduce him. Joseph resists her entreaties. Then finally, one day she's especially persistent and he explains to her why it is that she can't do what he wants to do. So I want to read with you what it is that he says. I'll share my screen here.
Verse 8. "Vayema'ein," and he holds himself back. "Vayomer el eishet adonav," and he says to his master's wife, "hein adoni lo yada iti mah babayit." He says, look, my master doesn't know what's going on in this household. I have his implicit trust. "V'chol asher yesh lo natan b'yadi," everything that he has, he's given in my hands. "Einenu gadol babayit hazeh mimeni," nobody is more significant in this household other than me. "V'lo chasach mimeni me'umah ki im otach ba'asher at ishto," he hasn't left behind anything. He's not even looking at what's going on. The only thing that he has kept away from me is you, insofar as you're his wife.
"V'eich e'eseh hara'ah hagedolah hazot," how could I possibly do this thing and sin to God? Then, one day she goes, "V'tit'feseihu b'vigdo," she grabs hold of his clothes. "Laymor shichvah imi." She's holding on to his clothes and says, sleep with me. "Vaya'azov bigdo b'yadah," and he leaves his clothes in her hands. "Vayanas vayeitzei hachutzah," and he goes and he runs outside.
Now, if Joseph has his wits about him, he's a smart guy. So he might understand that it's not necessarily strategically advisable to leave your clothes in the ands of this scorned woman, that you're vulnerable if you leave your clothes in her hands. You're vulnerable to being framed, which is exactly what she does. She goes back and frames him. As a result of being framed, Joseph ends up in prison. What's really interesting about the prison is that even though the Torah at this point calls it a beit hasohar, later on Joseph won't call it that. Joseph, when discussing the prison that he was put in, calls it a bor. Very interesting. He calls it a pit. Just like the pit that he was put in when he was first sold as a slave, he sees this prison as another pit. That's what he calls it later on, to his cellmates. He says, "Gam lo asiti me'umah ki samu oti babor."
Nassan: He lost his coat.
Rabbi Fohrman: And he lost his coat. Isn't this interesting? In two stories I lose my coat and I go into this pit. Now, that probably wasn't lost on Joseph. Think about it in terms of trauma. If you're Joseph, you're just getting your life back together in Egypt after you were traumatized after your brothers jumped you and they stripped you of your coat and you were going, and you were put back in the pit. When she grabs hold of that coat for you and you realize that the only way out is to leave the coat with her, to be stripped of that coat, and that you might be facing the pit, what is the part of your body which is reacting to trauma at that point? What is your body screaming at that point? It's like, no! No! Every fiber in my body says, I will not go back to the pit. I will not, a second time, be stripped of my clothes. The part of your body that doesn't understand time, the part of your body that thinks that the trauma is happening again is like, no, no, no. Your body is screaming.
And yet, that's exactly what Joseph does, but he does it a little bit differently. You see, the first time around, "Vayafshitu et kutanto," they stripped him of his clothes. The second time around, she didn't strip him of his clothes. She's grabbing his clothes, "Vaya'azov bigdo b'yadah," he leaves his clothes with her. What did he just reclaim? Agency.
Audience Member: His power of choice, yeah.
Rabbi Fohrman: Power of choice. I was not victimized. I am choosing this. That's a story, I'm choosing this. One of the things Bessel Van der Kolk says is that you don't have to heal trauma. You just have to support the human being so that their natural creativity can heal trauma. This is a creative way of healing trauma, I'm here in this same situation, but I'm choosing to go back in the pit because that's the only right thing to do.
Think about it, when you say it's the only right thing to do. So what do you mean, it's the only right thing to do? Well, look at the argument that he tells her. He says, how could I do this to my master? I would betray him. He left everything with me. He gave me everything.
Now, what's fascinating is if you look at the first time Potiphar entrusts Joseph with everything, the language is, "Vaya'azov kol asher lo b'yad Yosef," and he leaves everything in Joseph's hands. That's the language. Now listen to what he does when he leaves his coat in her hands. It's the same Hebrew verb, "Vaya'azov bigdo b'yadah," he leaves his coat in her hands.
Why? Because the only way I can rightfully repay Potiphar for leaving everything in my hands and implicitly trusting me, is making myself vulnerable and leaving this coat in her hands. It's the only thing I can do. It's the only right thing to do.
Now, think about what he's doing in that moment. This is the argument that I made in the Aleph Beta video that I was telling you, the Viceroy. The argument I made there is that Joseph has a dark night of the soul at this moment because the particular test that he's being faced with, which is what is he going to do with the wife of Potiphar? What is he going to do with Potiphar? Also is a replay not just for the trauma of the pit in the last story, but for the transgression of the pit, too.
What was the transgression? What did he do? He told bad reports about his brothers to his father, in an attempt to ingratiate himself with his father. Why is that a transgression? Because that's not how you're supposed to make Dad proud of you. You're supposed to make Dad proud of you for what you do. You're not supposed to make Dad proud of you because you put down your brothers, so Dad is relatively proud of you because they're such scoundrels. That's not a nice way to make yourself impressive in Father's eyes.
So in a way, what Joseph is guilty of in the original story when he brings dibatam ra'ah l'avihem, bad reports about his brothers to his father, is a misperception of what loyalty means to his father. In Joseph's view it is, I'm being a loyal son. My dad needs to know, I'm a spy. But that's a misperception of what loyalty really is. That's not really how you're a good, loyal son to your father.
Okay, so if that's the nature of his transgression at the pit, look at what he's faced with, with the wife of Potiphar. It's a loyalty test, isn't it? A loyalty test to Potiphar. But what's the nature of the test? If the problem at the pit was that Joseph was guilty of fake loyalty, the question with Potiphar is a question between fake loyalty and real loyalty, in the strongest of terms. He can have only one or the other, but not both.
Let me explain what I mean. He has a choice. When she grabs hold of his coat, he has a choice. He could go along with her. If he goes along with her and gives in to the seduction, Potiphar will never be the wiser. So he can have the appearance of loyalty to Potiphar, when in fact he's betraying him. It's fake loyalty, but he can have the appearance of loyalty. So will he choose the appearance of loyalty and actually betray, or the alternative?
The alternative is, the only way I can escape is to run away and to leave her with my clothes. If I do that, I give her the opportunity to tell lies about me to Potiphar, and to accuse me of attempted rape. But if that's the only way that I can be loyal, if I do that, what will Potiphar think of me? He'll think I betrayed him, but in fact it's the only way I can be loyal to him.
So here's your choice. Will you choose to be loyal if the only way you can be loyal is to look like you're betraying? Or will you choose to betray, and just seize on the appearances of loyalty? You can have appearances or you can have true loyalty, but you can't have them both. Which will you choose? He chooses true loyalty, even though he'll look like a betrayer, and even though Potiphar becomes angry and puts him in the pit.
That's his greatness. What's fascinating is that in so doing, he recovers from transgression. He recovers from transgression and he recovers from trauma at exactly the same moment, with one Hebrew word: "Vaya'azov bigdo b'yadah." Leaving that coat with her is a choice, to choose real loyalty over fake loyalty, to recover from the transgression, and a choice to not be afraid of the pit. To choose the pit. To reclaim your agency and to proactively choose it and say, I allow myself to not have these clothes. I allow myself to go back into the pit, and it's okay this time, and I will accept that. Once he does that, he becomes the master of the pit. He becomes the master of this transgression.
What gave him the strength to do that? All encapsulated in that one Hebrew word, vaya'azov. Come back to Jacob's dream. Jacob's dream and Joseph's dream. Joseph takes Jacob's dream one generation later. Now it's no longer a ladder; now it's a stalk. But he understands himself as the next chapter in that dream. As the next chapter in my father's dream, my father's promise applies. My destiny is to somehow do something which connects heaven and earth and allows blessing to come to the earth. I don't know how it's going to happen, but somehow it's going to happen. This story is one more step on the way towards that happening, of him actually rising to become second in charge to the king in Pharaoh.
So the first element of Jacob's dream, the vision, is true for Joseph. The second element of Jacob's dream, the promise that you're going to connect heaven and earth, is also true for Joseph. What about the third element, the promise, the guarantee, I will be there with you? What were the words that God said to Jacob? The words when He said, I will never leave you, in Hebrew. "Lo e'ezavcha," I will not leave you. It's the same Hebrew word as what Joseph is doing here to redeem himself from the trauma, to redeem himself from the transgression, in one word. "Vaya'azov bigdo b'yadah."
How did he get the strength to leave that coat in her hand? How did he get the strength to leave the coat in her hand to redeem the transgression, redeem the trauma, to go in the pit? How did he leave the coat in her hand? Because he understood, lo e'ezavcha, that God would not leave him. I have the strength to leave a coat, because I have a sense that I am not being left, that there's someone there with me. Even though I'm alone, and even though I don't know where my father and my mother is, and even though I don't have a house, and even though I'm going into this dark pit, I have the strength to choose it because I can let go of a coat if I am not being let go of.
That same sense that Bessel Van der Kolk was talking about, it's connection. Joseph has no connections at this point. He's surrendering all connections, but there's one connection he feels he still has, and it's that connection to God in the dream. Even though I don't have community, I have that and it seems to be that which nourishes him and gives him the strength to make these heroic choices. Ultimately, the promise of the dream does come true, partly because of the promise that I will not leave you.
So as we head into Selichot and as we head into community, I just want to leave you with that thought, too. We're going into the arms of other people that we know and that we love and may we be able to find support with them. But we're also going into the arms of a God that can connect with us, and to love us as well, and that we have the ability to look in the eye, face to face, and that maybe there is that promise, that same promise that was there for Jacob, that same process that was there to Joseph, that we're doing our best to be part of the ladder, doing our best to be part of that connection. We stumble on the way and yet, if we can count on that sense that even in the times that we feel most alone, we aren't completely alone. We can find the strength to rise up from the times that we feel terribly soiled and to be able to find the strength to go forward.
So those are the thoughts that I've been thinking about, that I wanted to leave you with. So I'll end this piece here and send you guys off to Selichot. If you like, I can stick around for a few moments for some questions or comments. Let me relate to the question that one of you had asked before.
Yechiel had talked about this also. I will say that this approach takes the view that what Jacob did with Esau was a transgression. That is a somewhat controversial view. There are some that argue that he did the right thing, that he should have deceived his brother, it was fine, that given the circumstances it was excusable. I don't personally subscribe to that. I think it was the wrong thing. I will agree that it's not absolutely clear in the text. You could read the text either way. I think the evidence is pretty strong to read it as a transgression, although it's complicated.
It's complicated because what Jacob did stands, or seems to stand, although that's unclear, also. One of the questions that you can ask in the aftermath of Genesis 27 is, did Jacob in fact get the blessings from Isaac, his father? It's not clear. It's not clear, first of all, what the blessing was. Was the blessing the right to take Abraham's blessing and take it forward into generations? It doesn't seem so. The blessings that he took seem much more material than that. If you look at what the blessings are about, they're much more about rov dagan v'tirosh, about getting food and about being taken care of.
Interestingly enough, when he reconciles with Esau, he says, "Kach na et birchati." It's almost as if he's asking to give back the blessings to Esau. So there's a lot of ambiguity in the story.
I would just refer you -- the hour's late so I don't want to keep you here for a long defense of my theory there. I will say that if you're looking for a defense of my theory, I think a good place to find it would be in Genesis: A Parsha Companion, the essays on Vayeitzei and Vayishlach, mostly. Especially the Vayishlach essay, where I think there are some Midrashim also which I think support the view that what Jacob did when deceiving his father was less than laudable, and yet there's some ambiguity that surrounds it. So I'll say that for now.
As to whether or not Esau's 400 men was precautionary or malevolent, it's another ambiguity in the text. Jacob certainly sees it as potentially malevolent, and it may be that it wasn't absolutely malevolent. The same way that Jacob goes into this encounter not knowing what's going to happen, Esau goes into the encounter not knowing what's going to happen. Although remember, Esau had pledged once that he was going to kill his brother. We know that from Genesis 27. So the coming with 400 men does have a little bit of a darker overtone to it than it otherwise might. But it seems that Jacob is successful at defusing the situation.
Any other comments? If you'd like, before I send you off.
Audience Member: So then why, in our tradition, is Esau seen as evil even though he reconciled with his brother?
Rabbi Fohrman: So I'm not sure that Esau is seen as evil universally in our tradition. You will find some Midrashim, and you'll find especially Medieval commentators that will see Esau as evil. Sometimes Esau is called Eisav Harasha in that way. But you'll find other Midrashim that won't see him that way. In particular, you'll find evidence in the text -- and I refer you to the series on Aleph Beta called "Parent Trap" on the story from two weeks ago, kan tzipor in Deuteronomy, in Parshat Ki Teitzei. It seems to be deeply connected to the Jacob and Esau story. If you follow that thread, it actually seems like Esau was actually rewarded, in particular for his interaction with Jacob, for the fact that in this story he did not kill him. That seems to be something that is eternally to his credit.
It is interesting that right after the story with Jacob and Esau, that when Esau doesn't kill Jacob when he could have, actually, the very next chapter gives you the lineage of Esau and all the kings of Esau. It basically makes the argument that Esau establishes. The text even says it, "V'eileh hamelachim asher malchu b'eretz Edom lifnei meloch melech l'Bnei Yisrael." These are all the kings that were the kings of Edom before there was ever a king for Israel, and that Esau's route to taking his God-given heritage in Seir was actually a shorter route than Jacob's.
It seems like, the argument that I make in "The Parent Trap", is that that actually is a kind of -- seems to be a kind of reward that was given to Esau. Again, it would take me a while to make the points now, but if you can, watch "The Parent Trap" videos all the way through the end. I do think that they are pretty intriguing.
I will say that I think to some extent there's some, possibly, historical bias, a little bit. I'm not sure, but if you think about the times in which the commentators would call Esau, Eisav harasha, it was times when we were persecuted by -- pretty much during the Crusades. The tradition had it that the Romans and the Roman Catholic church and the Byzantines and all that were in some way the heirs of Esau. We saw ourselves as being continually victimized by them. I guess from that perspective it certainly seems like Eisav Harasha, Esau the evildoer. There are aspects of Esau that aren't perfect, and yet I think a simple read of the text in Genesis 27, the basic read of the text is that the text seems to be going out of its way, if not to paint Esau perfectly, certainly to paint him as -- when he cries and tells his father, "Habrachah achat hee lecha avi," do you really have only one blessing to give, father? It's one of the most poignant moments. It seems like the Torah is marshalling a sense of compassion that we're supposed to have for him in that moment.
Again, look at the essay in Parshat Vayishlach. One of the Midrashim that don't paint Esau as Eisav Harasha, is the Midrash that connects the plight of the people of Israel during the times of the Megillah, to Genesis Chapter 27. It says that when Mordechai lets out a great and bitter cry, the only other person who lets out a great and bigger cry is Esau. This time, Mordechai is tormented by a child of Esau, notably Haman, who comes from Agag, who comes from Amalek. But the text tells us that he lets out a great and bitter cry and that when God heard the great and bitter cry of Esau, so God swore and said that anybody who says that God is a vatran, that God just lets things slide, doesn't know what he was talking about. God's memory lasts for centuries. With the same words that Jacob deceived Esau and Esau let out a great and bitter cry, so it would be that later on in history the descendants of Esau would have the ability to inflict a great and bitter cry from the people of Israel.
I talk about this at length in the Vayishlach essay and its implications, so look at that. I'm just saying, it's not simple. There are views either way, and I admit to those counterviews as well.
Isaac: Rabbi Fohrman, you made a lot of points tonight. First of all, thank you so much. It was amazing, and a really great prelude to Selichot and to the High Holidays. A couple of key points you made at the beginning, essentially, that praying with community can be restorative for trauma in some limbic sense that transcends rationality, per se. That's one point.
Another point you made is that by reclaiming agency, we can gain a better sense of teshuvah, a sense of repentance. Both of these are, you're arguing, important to the process of repentance, of teshuvah.
My question is, are those two points connected in any way? Is praying with the community helpful to reclaiming agency?
Rabbi Fohrman: That's an interesting question, Isaac. I don't know the answer to that. I'm kind of wondering about that, myself. I don't know. I wonder whether it is. Is there -- you know, sometimes when you connect with community in the wrong way, it defeats agency. Sometimes, when you connect to community in a way that's less than wonderful, we give in to peer pressure and we find our agency slipping. But sometimes, maybe community has the ability to pull us out and to give us the strength to make morally courageous decisions, too. When we connect to community in that kind of way that we say as an individual I feel sullied, but I just feel better. As you say, limbicly connected to the community.
I have a sense that I'm not so evil and that I have some work. I can see that fueling the ability to reclaim my agency, part of the thing that makes me so passive and so surrendering and surrendering my freedom is my sense that I don't really have this freedom. I think one of the things that allows us to sin is a sense that, well, who am I, anyway? I'm not that powerful. I'm not that wonderful. Because you don't just have to be morally virtuous to avoid being sinning. You actually have to be powerful, to the extent that it is an expression of agency, you have to seize your power as a human being to say, no, I'm actually doing something hard right now.
It's a subtle point, but that's not just a moral thing. It's not just a moral choice. It's also a human expression of power. Aside from the morality involved, it's like literally lifting weights. It requires power to do. If you don't have that power, if you feel sapped of power, if you feel weak because I feel my humanity is attenuated, then I sometimes don't have the power to make -- even though I might consciously like virtue x, y, and z, I'm too exhausted and I can allow myself to fall into sin.
So I think that community, to the extent that it can help restore our sense of normalcy and our humanity, I think what you're suggesting is possibly true, that it can help us reclaim some of that power. So maybe, in fact, those things are connected.
Guys, I'm going to head off to Selichot myself, now. It's pretty late. I'm going to wish you guys a really good this time of year, a really good season of teshuvah. I hope this discussion was good and helpful to you, and I wish you and your families and those who you love and all of us, a very sweet and wonderful new year. A year of health, a year of thriving, and a year of connectedness to one another in good ways and not in bad ways. In ways that give us strength to move forward and to do the hard things in life that are virtuous and that will make us and God proud.
So I wish you a good night. Thanks for being a part of Aleph Beta. Thanks for being part of what I do. I look forward to seeing you guys again in the future. Have a good night.