Strength, knowledge required to climb God’s ladder

It is a wondrous thing to watch an infant or a child of 2 or 3 years old. A set of car keys jingling, the dancing waters of a fountain in front of an office building, or even the colors on a bright shirt provide unlimited moments of fascination. Somewhere along the way these simple discoveries and the joy they bring are replaced by a complacency about life and all of its small miracles. Perhaps that is one of the reasons we find infants and toddlers so entertaining. We glimpse back at that original innocent wonder that we once felt. It is a moment of magic rediscovered.
The rabbis knew that we were prone to that sense of numbing complacency from the rigor and demands of our daily lives. They set a prayer of regular thanksgiving, the Hoda’ah, to be read at every worship service, morning, noon and night. They realized that the awareness of miracles each new day would dissipate with the demands of the day.
In the set of Torah readings that begins this week with Toldot, our ancestor Jacob goes through a journey of discovery. His life has been lived one step in front of the other, always fearful and unaware of the wonders around him. Caught in parental rivalries and favoritism, he tricks his brother into selling his birthright, and is complacent in his mother’s act of deception against his father and brother. Jacob dresses in clothes that will imitate the smell and feel of his brother Esau’s body so he may receive his brother’s birthright blessing of the first-born. When his brother discovers this, Jacob must flee for his life.
In the next portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob falls asleep and dreams of a ladder reaching upward toward heaven with angels climbing up and down. God speaks to him and promises him a life of bounty. Jacob wakes up, aware for the first time in his life, and says, “Truly God is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). He names the spot Beth-El, a house of God, and goes on his way.
It would seem that Jacob has been transformed by the encounter, but his life will continue to be filled with more moments of deception before he and his brother, Esau, meet again in our third Torah portion, Vayishlach, read a week later. At that time, Jacob will finally grasp the miracle of each day and the awesome possibilities they present. He and his brother will reconcile and Jacob will seem to finally gain an awareness of the gift of each moment.
How appropriate that this three-week section of Torah readings that leads us to an to awakening of gratitude and a sense of awe takes place around the holiday of Thanksgiving. We live our lives so overwhelmed by tasks, so fearful of failure, and so afraid to miss a moment that we often miss it all. Thanksgiving is an American attempt to regain that sense of the ineffable wonder of discovery.
And yet, even Thanksgiving has lost its way. It has become victim to earlier and earlier store opening times, consumption of too much food and too many products, and a focus on highly-paid football gladiators. The holiday revolves less and less around the people, the real miracles that gather with us in our own living and dining rooms surrounded by a bounty of family and food. As our Torah portion teaches us, the first step is awe, the ability to see the ladder of our lives that rises heavenward. The second step is our response, knowing when it is time to climb the ladder and express our lives in acts of gratitude.
As the great rabbi and teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” (Rabbi Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man)
May you have a Thanksgiving filled with the vision to glimpse the ladder of God and blessing and the strength to know how to climb it.
Rabbi Brian Zimmerman is the spiritual leader of Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth.

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