By Rabbi Ben Sternman
I’ve always loved the way this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, begins. As Jacob flees his brother’s wrath, he stops for the night in an unnamed place and has to use a rock for a pillow. He dreams of a ladder that reaches all the way into Heaven with angels traveling up and down. He has a vision of God, who promises Jacob an awe-inspiring future and to always be there for him. Then Jacob wakes up and exclaims: “Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!”
I can imagine myself in Jacob’s sandals, feeling sorry for myself at having to flee my murderous brother, out in the middle of the wilderness with a rock as my pillow. I’ve never liked camping and I would have felt pretty miserable too. But then to encounter God! To realize that even there, in a place so nondescript that it didn’t merit so much as a name or provide any comfort at all, even there, God was with me! But isn’t that how we often travel through life? We move from place to place, from time to time, without being fully aware, just as Jacob wasn’t fully aware until he had his eyes opened for him.
This has been a terrible, miserable year and there is no other way to put it. Some of us have been forced to carry on with our jobs, risking our health, because we hold essential jobs that must be done. Some of us have been isolated at home only going out when necessary, but still trying to work from home while caring for children as they try to go to school online. Some of us have lost our jobs, but have been unable to go out to look for other work. Worst of all, some of us have died alone, isolated in an ICU room from family, friends or other human contact. We have lost our sense of time so that our days run together and we call them all “Blursday.”
And yet. And yet. Even in this place without a name and outside of time, we can become aware that God is here with us, even when we don’t know it.
This is Thanksgiving week and I could focus on the fact that I have a rock for a pillow while camping in the middle of nowhere. I could focus on the fact that I can’t be with my family and friends, as I have been in the past. I could focus on the fact that on Thursday, if I’m able to differentiate it from Wednesday, I will cook another dinner that I consume by myself. I could do all that, but I would rather be like Jacob after I’ve woken up and opened my eyes, suddenly aware of God all around.
I would rather give thanks for what I do have, than mourn what I am missing. I would rather give thanks for the awareness that I am never truly alone when God’s Presence is always there. I would rather give thanks that where we are now, is just a resting place on our journey, that we will not be stuck here forever. This week, I would rather give thanks.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.