Many will meet over the coming weekend and subsequent weeks for Thanksgiving and the various winter holidays in America. This year, in its all too familiar and unprecedented fashion, has come complete with a caveat. We are being advised to hunker down; avoid large gatherings, and celebrate only with immediate family members whom we are already exposed to regularly. During a time when everyone is longing for the light at the end of the tunnel, many of us feel as if the tunnel has become too much to bear. Even with multiple vaccines seemingly fast approaching, the end of this collective nightmare feels to many like it might never come.
Luckily, we have the Torah to glean lessons and insights from. This week’s parsha is Vayeitzei, which has much to do with Jacob’s journey from Beer-sheba to his uncle Laban’s house in Haran, and all of the activity that unfolds therein. I would like to take a look at the beginning of the parsha for a moment, for I think that we can discover a message there that might resonate with all of us. In Genesis 28:11, it is written of Jacob: “He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set.” Many believe “the place” to be Mount Moriah, which would be the future site of the Holy Temple, and Jacob’s exact resting place would be the location of the Holy of Holies. When Jacob falls asleep he goes on to have his famous dream wherein, “…a ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward; and behold! Angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Gen. 28:12). Soon thereafter, God speaks directly to Jacob, and assures him that the covenant that was originally made with Abraham will continue to be upheld via Jacob and his lineage. God simply tells Jacob, “I am with thee.”
Other than the obvious awesomeness of such a “panim-el-panim” encounter with God, Jacob’s experience stands out. Jacob is stricken with pure awe as he says, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Gen. 28:16). Jacob again shows his sense of excitement and wonder as he utters a phrase that has become so dear to my own heart: “Mah-nora ha-makom hazeh!”, or “How full of awe is this place!” in verse 17. Jacob is finding the holy in the liminality; he is standing at a threshold, and is nothing if not in between. Remember that Jacob saw angels ascending and descending the ladder in his dream. What to make of this? While there are a sundry of interpretations available, one of my favorites is sprinkled with a touch of the numerology of Gematria. There is a Midrash which compares the Hebrew words “Sinai” and the word for ladder, “Sulam.” The numerical values of Sinai and Sulam are identical, both at 130. This Midrash claims that the angels are representative of Moses and Aaron. God was at the top of the ladder, as he was present to give the Torah at the top of Mount Sinai. The Torah, which is taught by sages a la Moses and Aaron, is the ladder that we use to bridge the gap from heaven to earth.
There is certainly a lot to unpack here, and this is only the first snippet of the parsha! Let us examine. Jacob came to rest in “the place.” He only halted there because the sun had set and he required a place to rest his head for the night. This “place” likely appeared rather ordinary. Jacob was in between his flight from Esau’s wrath and his new experiences in Haran. He was not at a sacred or religious site. While his head was on a rock in the space between, God appeared to him and showed him the awesomeness that can exist in any “place” and at any time. This Thanksgiving and following might feel to us like a rock underneath our heads. We are uncomfortable. We are more alone than we are used to being, and used to feeling. Are we truly solitary, or are we living in the moment wherein our eyes are about to be opened wide letting a flood of beautiful and Holy light in?
Jacob’s experience teaches us something else that we might do well to keep in mind over these holidays: the art of patience. When Jacob arrives in Haran, he meets Laban’s youngest daughter, Rachel. He loves Rachel so much that he is willing to wait for her. Laban asks Jacob to serve him for seven years before he will allow him to marry Rachel. What follows is perhaps one of the most beautifully romantic verses in the Torah: “And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her” (Gen. 29:20). Many of you know that Jacob was subsequently duped by Laban into marrying his elder daughter Leah, and actually served Laban another seven years for Rachel. Even so, Jacob’s love for Rachel did not seem to spark in him impulsivity and short-term thinking. He loved her, so he waited patiently.
If we truly want to show love to our families, friends and all those whom we hold dear this Thanksgiving and following, we might take a lesson in patience from Jacob. He loved Rachel, so he waited patiently. We love our people, so we would be wise to think and act similarly. We know this is not the year for large gatherings, tight embraces, and close conversations. We are being told to wait. This year, to wait is to love fiercely.
While we are biding our time, may we all be blessed to find “the place” where we are. The Divine is with us where we happen to be, and the time and space in between is as holy as anywhere that is labeled as sacred. Our time with loved ones is sacred, so let us honor it with patient waiting. The ladder between heaven and earth is around us always if we are willing to gaze openly at our angels. I pray that the moment we are all able to be together again seems as Jacob’s years waiting for Rachel: but a few days.
May you all have a healthy and blessed Thanksgiving.