Monday, November 30, 2009
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
As a rabbinical student in Israel I camped out with my classmates under a star-glutted Negev sky to see Comet Hyakutake burn its trail through the night. It was a Shehecheyanu moment and we offered the blessing with wide eyes.
I imagine that some wilderness wanderer may have felt the same thing upon seeing Comet Hyakutake when she passed this way before, 17,500 years ago. Relatively recently, only about 4,000 years ago, a nomad named Jacob is said to have felt the same thing on his journey, a short distance from our campsite.
“Coming upon a [certain] place, he passed the night there, for the sun was setting; taking one of the stones of the place, he made it his head-rest as he lay down in that place” (Gen. 28:11). The story is told in this week’s parasha, Vayetzei. Three times in a single verse we find the word “place,” inviting us to speculate on the mystical qualities of this particular spot. What makes it special? Is it a natural feature, a mountain or an oasis? A rainbow or a comet? Or maybe a supernatural sight, like a burning bush?
No. It is a place of dirt and rocks. It lacks any distinguishing feature as much as it lacks a proper name. Jacob arrives there alone, a stone beneath his weary head. He was a long way from home for the first time in his life.
Jacob “dreamed, and lo—a ladder was set on the ground, with its top reaching into heaven, and lo—angels of God going up and coming down on it…. Waking from his sleep, Jacob said, ‘Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!’ He was awestruck, and said, ‘How awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!’” (Gen. 28:12, 16-17). It was not the place that had changed. It was Jacob. He discovered that inspiration and blessing can come to us in any place, if we but harness the vision.
These words of Torah arrive in poetic symmetry with Thanksgiving. And so we ask, as we do every year, “For what do we give thanks?” Perhaps the answers come less easily these days. It’s easy to give thanks when jobs abound, when our children know only peace. Today, the housing market alone drives many to despondency. The protracted war in Iraq exacts a burdensome toll on human lives and the American psyche. The horizon looms with the hazy uncertainty of climate change and our dependency on diminishing oil reserves. Who can blame a person for feeling discouraged and depleted? I’m reminded of the story of two cantankerous old men who are complaining about how miserable life can be. One says to the other, “You know, sometimes I think it’s better not to have been born at all.” “True,” says his friend, “But how many people are that lucky?”
Amid this wilderness, can we, with Jacob, yet find cause to say, “Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it?”
In the wilderness, a place devoid of life, Jacob found reason to celebrate his life, to give thanks for his journey, and to look to the future with hope. So we must try.
The Psalmist, a certified expert in the art of giving thanks, wrote, “Let all that has within it the breath of life praise God: Hallelujah!” (Ps. 150:6).
Obstacles to feeling joy and contentment are real and serious. In truth the daily grind erodes our gratitude at least as much as the devastating headlines.
A bit of Chasidic wisdom notes that “just as the hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so the routine of everyday life can keep us from seeing the vast radiance and secret wonders that fill the world.” Where a wilderness had loomed, Jacob found a place where earth and heaven met: a ladder rooted in that place (it could have been any place) that reached to a place of radiance.
Life is filled with Shehecheyanu moments. Of course we say that requisite blessing at weddings and holidays and life-altering occasions. But tradition in fact instructs one to recite Shehecheyanu upon building a new house. Or when buying new vessels—pots and pans and the like. Or when putting on new clothes. You say it when you taste the first fruit of a new season.
Maybe we should pause to give thanks every time we’re about to sit down to a good meal – not just this Thursday. A simple blessing would suffice. Luciano Pavarotti (no stranger to a good meal) once remarked, “One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”
In the movie Manhattan, Woody Allen’s love-struck character catalogs a list of “reasons that made life worth living.” It’s deceptively simple stuff. “Groucho Marx. Willie Mays. The second movement of the Jupiter Symphony. Louis Armstrong's recording of ‘Potato Head Blues.’ Swedish movies. Flaubert's Sentimental Education. Marlon Brando. Frank Sinatra. The apples and pears by Cézanne. The crabs at Sam Wo's.” And, finally, his love “Tracy’s face.”
Take a few minutes to make your list. As you write it down, you may see a ladder that connects the terrestrial to the celestial. We pass them by every day, as we walk in awe-inspiring places, yet do not know it. Cast your eyes to the simple things that give you joy and peace and you may glimpse a sacred stairway. They are everywhere, inviting us to ascend.