Nov. 27, 2020
By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES
As a b’nai mitzvah teacher in the early 90s, I would teach my students the midrash of Lilah, the Angel of Conception and the Midwife of Souls, who watches over all babies as they grow in the womb. For nine months, Lilah keeps a lamp lit so the babies can see from one end of the world to the other. She makes the babies feel loved and whispers all the secrets of Torah and Paradise and the universe into their little ears.
When a baby is born, the angel gently touches her finger to the baby’s lips and says, “shhhh.” The baby forgets all that they have learned and are left with the mark of the angel’s fingertip above their lip – the same mark we all still have above our upper lip today.
My students loved this sweet midrash, not only because there’s something comforting about an angel watching over us, but because it explains why, when we learn something, the moment often feels not new but like we are remembering. How often have we heard a piece of information and found it so obvious that we wondered why we hadn’t figured it out for ourselves? According to our tradition, it’s because we aren’t learning, we are remembering.
Our Torah reading this week, Parshat Va’yetzeh, brought to mind the angel Lilah. The parsha begins as Jacob is fleeing to find refuge from his enraged brother Esau, from whom he’s stolen their father’s birthright and blessing.
When evening falls and Jacob stops to rest, he falls asleep and dreams about a ladder on which angels of G-d are traveling up and down. In this dream, G-d appears by Jacob’s side and gives Jacob the same blessing of posterity and protection that was earlier given to his father and grandfather, Isaac and Abraham. When Jacob wakes up from sleep he says:
אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי”
“Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it” (Gen: 28:16).
Commentary on this passage usually centers around the fact that Jacob thought this resting place was like any other – he doesn’t recognize the holiness. But soon enough, we experience Jacob’s sense of wonder and appreciation that G-d was there, in that holy place, all along. Jacob says he “didn’t know” of G-d’s presence, but there is some discussion that Jacob did know – he just needed a reminder. G-d’s presence is always there, always everywhere; the dream simply helped Jacob remember.
Dreams can be a helpful way for us to recognize our emotional and mental state, for our inner life to convey to our consciousness what we are feeling. For Jacob, the dream of the ladder communicated G-d’s message directly and unmistakably: “Remember who you are. I am with you.”
Parsha Va’yetzeh is a good lesson, a reminder for all of us to not get too attached to what we think we know. The memories that the angel Lilah whispered to us in the womb are buried deeply within us and sometimes, it takes a while, and some faith, to unearth them. If we keep our hearts and minds open, there’s no telling what we can learn and what we may remember.
Ilana Krygier Lapides lives in Calgary. She has three adult children, one of whom lives at home with her and her husband and their very large dog. Ilana is a rabbinic student with JSLI in New York. She will be ordained next month.