On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: The Power of Jewish Meditation - Parshat Vayeitzeh

Many of us lead busy lives, but what if we were to take just one moment each day to simply "be present"? Rabbi Jacobs uses the story of Jacob's dream to guide us in meditating Jewishly so we can connect more deeply to the Divine, to ourselves, and to one another.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us a little bit about the weekly Torah portion. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parshat Vayetzei, digging deep into what Jewish meditation is about and even offers a meditation himself.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parshat Vayetzei from the Book of Genesis. And we have, in the opening verses, Jacob sets out on a journey. He actually is escaping. His brother is furious at him for the stealing of the birthright and finagling the blessing, and he has to hightail it out of town. And he's off on his own, and he's in the middle of what he thinks is a god-forsaken place.

So it's at night, it's quiet, and he has a dream that changes his life. But more important than just the dream changes his life, he awakens. He awakens to a new clarity about himself, about God, about the world, about what matters. So there is a dimension of the Jewish tradition that sees, in what happened to Jacob at the beginning of that journey at Beth-El, with the ladder reaching from Earth to Heaven, that it was a mystical experience, that it was a contemplative experience, potentially a meditative experience, because it had those characteristics that, very often, we associate with contemplative practice-- alone, quiet, a moment of clarifying and awakening.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the great 19th century Hasidic master, had a special room that he reserved only for his meditation. And it was there that he sat, sometimes for very long stretches. The great psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, built a small cottage near his house for precisely the same reason, to go, and to meditate, and to have time for deep reflection.

So I want to reflect on the Jewish meditative tradition. I have to say, personally, when I was a teenager, I was very, very intrigued by meditation, and I didn't know that there was a rich Jewish meditative tradition. So I journeyed, east and I learned to do transcendental meditation. And as part of that, they make you promise that you'll never share with anyone your mantra, your one or two word phrase that you say over and over again quietly while you meditate.

Well, I had my Sanskrit word. I meditated for many years, still do to this day. It wasn't until I became a student of Jewish mysticism and studied Kabbalah that I learned that that word, that Sanskrit word that I was taught, to be my mantra is also a Hebrew word for one of the key concepts of Kabbalah. So it felt very redemptive that I was, even those years before I knew it, doing a form of Jewish meditation.

But meditation is a deep part of the Jewish tradition, going back to the Bible. There's wonderful teachings, in the Prophets and in other sections, that our ancestors potentially had moments of contemplative clarity. They were able to either close their eyes and focus on their breath or maybe repeating a phrase, a chant, or maybe even a kind of mantra.

So I know that, for many of us, the idea of meditation is attractive. Some of us on the podcast, you may be regular meditators. Others may be curious to know what it was. And in trying to explain what meditation does, I remember my family was living in Israel, my wife and our three kids, and they were very young. And I said to my wife, you know, why don't we turn over a leaf, and while we're here in Israel, let's also eat more healthy food, let's drink more healthy drinks with our kids.

So our kids were out playing soccer in the front yard with all the Israeli kids and it was a very hot day. And they came in and said, we're so thirsty, what do you have to drink? And I remember I had gone to the natural foods store in the neighborhood and bought this giant gallon jug of unfiltered apple juice. So I poured three glasses of unfiltered apple juice. And if you've seen that, it's kind of thick. And my three kids looked at those three glasses and said, ugh, we're not drinking that. And they ran outside and came back in about 15 minutes later and said, "do you have any juice? Real juice, not that juice you bought at that store." I said, "yeah, and it's right there on the table." And they looked at-- I hadn't touched the glasses, the same three glasses-- and they looked and said, "thank you, aba, it so nice for you to have run out and got the juice that we liked." And each of them drank their little glass of juice. It's the same exact juice that I poured, but 15 minutes later, the juice was clear. The sediment from the apple had settled to the bottom of the glasses. So to me, that's what meditation does. It stills us. It stills all the noise and all the tumult of our lives, and we have so much of it-- more than perhaps our ancestors could ever have imagined.

So for some of us, we meditate while we're at prayer with our community, right? Sometimes you see people in services, they've got their eyes closed, people are standing, and sitting, turning pages, and they're just quietly in their quiet space. Some of us have meditated in a quiet space in our home, morning and evening. And I have to say, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, which was founded by Rabbi Rachel Cowan, has opened up meditation for the wider Jewish community and taught many of us authentic, ancient forms of meditation. And I became a student of the first cohort of the rabbinic cohort of the Institute for Jews Spirituality, and we went on silent retreats. Can you imagine a group of rabbis going on a silent retreat? But that's what we did, and the stillness and the quiet was so not only liberating, but I just felt the sediment in my being settling and getting clearer in how I was thinking. So one of the teachers for our retreat was Sylvia Boorstein, who is one of the great teachers of meditation and Jewish spirituality. She has so many beautiful teachings. I remember she said to us, "mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn't more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present, moment pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is without either clinging to it or rejoicing in it." She says, "when the mind is clear, behavior is always impeccable." She also said, "don't just do something, sit there, right? Find some stillness."

So I don't know where you are right now in the podcast. You might be in a car, you might be walking in the woods, you might be washing the breakfast dishes. But I'm going to ask us to do a little meditation. If you're not driving a car-- if you're a passenger-- you can do this. If you're driving a car, save it for later. Close your eyes. Just feel a little bit of life in your body, your feet planted. If you're walking, feel the balls of your feet really touching and feeling the earth beneath you, even if you have shoes on. And just notice your breath. Don't change it, don't exaggerate it, just notice it. Notice as the breath comes in, feel the way your lungs fill up your chest rises, and then feel the air go out. And just do that a few times and just become aware. Tune out-- there's going to be noise, there's going to be a car going by, there's some birds if you're outside, or something beeps in the house. But just focus your attention on that breath. And as you do that over the course of minutes, that's a form of Jewish meditation. That's a form of distilling, and getting clear, and having your mind really focus in.

Sometimes we do that in the midst of services. Sometimes we use a phrase. It could be a phrase like Sh'ma Yisrael. And we repeat a phrase and hear the different nuances in the cadence of that teaching. What happens, again, sometimes we meditate for weeks or months, and it's not a revelation. Our Torah text Vayetzei, tells us what happened to Jacob. It says, "Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, surely the eternal is present in this place and I did not know sit. Shaken, he said, how awesome, how filled with aw is this place. This is none other than the abode of God." Now, that's a pretty big awakening. And maybe the first few times you meditate or the first stretch of time, you're not actually going to have a monumental, cataclysmic awakening of your soul and a revelation of the Holy One. But if we can slowly and surely become more present, more aware, more clear, that is one of the great gifts of Jewish meditation. And thinking about a life of contemplation, a life where we take time and do these things, is a life that is grounded in Jewish spirituality. You don't have to go to the Far East to find these practices. And for some of us, these are the very foundations of our Jewish religious life.

The last meditation I just would give you to try at some point-- I like to do it before Shabbat-- is a chesed meditation. Chesed it means loving kindness. And what I try to do is to close my eyes, and sit quietly, and think of everyone in my circle of family. Some of them are far off, some of them no longer walk the Earth. And in the quiet of that meditation, I just send them a blessing, just a thought, a healing bit of love that just, in my mind and heart, I send to them. And then I widen out the circle, not just of my close family, but some of the friends I've been less in touch with. And then I think the spiritual challenge of that exercise is to include somebody with whom you have tension, somebody with whom you've had a falling out, or some really awkward, painful interactions, and to send them a blessing as well. And I'm not suggesting that just meditating with my eyes closed in my house before Shabbat is going to heal all those relationships, but I can tell you what happens when you next see that person with whom you've had tension, and you've done a chesed meditation, and sent them some of that loving blessing. When you see them, you already see them differently, and you open to them in different ways. True as well to the people we're very close to and feel very bonded with and deeply connected.

So Jewish meditation, it's not just for Jacob, it's not just for some of the worthies from our past. It may be your path. It may be a new path, but it is a way for us to awaken, and to get clear, and to be grounded. Maybe that's going to be your Beth-El moment, your ladder reaching, connecting Heaven to Earth. Or maybe it will just be one of those quiet ways that you see the path before you more clearly and more easily followed.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit reformjudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l'hitraot.