Parashat Vayeitsei: The danger of routine

We need to cultivate pathways to awe so that we can wake ourselves again and again.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
HOW MUCH of your life do you spend sleepwalking? How much of your life do you spend going through the motions, carried forward by force of habit rather than any particular consciousness or will? Most of us do this much of the time.
I wake in the morning, make the kid breakfast, get us dressed, pack our lunches, see him safely onto the school bus, and go to work, glancing at emails and Facebook messages all the while. Your variation probably looks slightly different, but not that different.
Morning routines followed by the workday, evening routines followed by sleep.
There are good reasons why human beings routinize daily acts. Otherwise we’d be paralyzed by possibility. But the danger of routine is that we stop noticing what’s beautiful, or moving, or real. Our lives become cookbook recipes from which we never divagate.
We forget to add the most critical ingredients: mindfulness and heart. We move through our lives asleep.
This week’s Torah portion offers us a striking example of what it might look like to wake up. Jacob rests his head on a stone and dreams of a ladder rooted in the earth reaching up to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending upon it. (Ex. 28:12) He has an encounter with God and when he wakes, he is shaken. “Surely God is in this place,” he exclaims, “and I – I did not know!” (Ex. 28:16) Rashi notes, tartly, “For had I known, I would not have slept in such a holy place as this.” Who would dare to fall asleep in God’s own house? Imagine falling asleep in the President’s mansion, in a courtroom where you are the defendant, in the front row of the greatest synagogue in the world.
But we all fall asleep in such places. We spend much of our lives asleep in such places.
Jacob’s sleep was literal, but his awakening was also figurative – like our own.
Jacob’s awakening was also temporary – like our own. His awe lasted only for a moment before he began bargaining with God for what he wanted.
Our awe too is fleeting... but that’s no reason not to cultivate it. On the contrary: precisely because human hearts and souls are incapable of living in constant amazement, we need to cultivate pathways to awe so that we can wake ourselves again and again.
This week’s Torah portion invites us to wake up, like Jacob, and to recognize the presence of God in this very place and time.
Wherever you are, reading these words, right now – that can be a holy place. Anyplace where you wake up from complacency and routine and remember that being alive is miraculous – that can be a holy place.
The Torah text presumes particular holiness accruing in the place where Jacob dreamed – the place we now know as Jerusalem.
That place is a holy place indeed.
But it’s not the only holy place. One of the most powerful lessons of post-Temple life is that any place can be a point of connection with God. Any rock can be the foundation of heaven’s ladder. The ladder connecting earth and heaven is anyplace where we open our hearts and our eyes.
The Zohar, one of the germinal works of Jewish mysticism, sees Jacob’s ladder and its angels as a metaphor for prayer. (Zohar I, 149B) The angels in the text ascend before they descend. They carry (or perhaps they are) our prayers, rising to the heavens, and then they return with blessing and abundance in response to our hearts’ cry.
Jacob’s ladder is always available to us – any time we pray with our whole hearts.
Jacob’s awareness of God and of the miraculous is always available to us – any time we wake from our metaphorical slumber.
Waking ourselves up is the work of spiritual practice. And it’s always temporary. No one lives in a state of constant awareness of the miracle of being alive, or constant awareness of the presence of God, all the time.
We fall asleep, we wake ourselves up, we fall asleep again. This is the ebb and flow, or running and returning (Ezekiel 1:14), of spiritual life and practice.
The teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory, used to compare the siddur (prayer book) to freeze-dried soup. It contains basic ingredients, but in order for those ingredients to be nourishing, the person praying must add awareness and heart. The person praying needs to wake up to the possibilities inherent in the words on the page, and bring their own hopes and fears and yearnings into those words. Only then can the prayers feed the heart and soul.
Our task is to notice when we’ve fallen into the habit of “just add water,” and to push ourselves to bring awareness and wholeheartedness to bear on whatever life presents. Jacob’s ladder is right here, right now. God is in this place, and I – I let myself forget. How good it is to feel awe as I remember.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat serves as co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Author of several volumes of poetry, including Open My Lips (Ben Yehuda, 2016), she has blogged since 2003 as the Velveteen Rabbi. Find her online at