At this writing, I am about to lead the Shabbat service that features the Torah reading VAYEITZEI, which opens with the patriarch Jacob’s dream at Beth-El. This passage is often on our minds and right before our eyes when we attend services. The Neir Tamid in our Sanctuary places the ladder/stairway in front of us every week, uniting the symbolism of light with a connection between heaven and earth.
The rabbis imagined Jacob to be somewhat hesitant to step onto the ladder because of the risk of failing to rise to the top. In one midrash, God showed Jacob how the great powers of the world (represented by the angels going up and down the ladder) would rise and fall, while the children of Jacob would not suffer the same fate. In those rabbinic interpretations, we never see Jacob taking the step onto the ladder, at least not at that point. In Genesis Chapter 28, Jacob essentially declared that if God took care of all of his needs and saw him through his coming challenges and adventures, then Jacob would fully believe in God. Such a conditional approach has bothered some commentators, but it demonstrates Jacob’s humanity. Even making such a pledge was still a commitment to a future relationship, which only would be fulfilled if Jacob continued on his journey to find a wife and to create and raise a family. We know, from the end of the story, that Jacob did act out of his own initiative without waiting for God to do everything for him.
Worship in most any context is a lot like Jacob’s relationship with God. The words, the melodies, and the possibility of community are always there, waiting for us to take an active participatory step to make prayers and expressions of belief, commitment, joy, and hope come alive. The generations before us provided us rituals, symbols and an order of a service that reminds us of the wonder of creation, the gift of wisdom, and the trust that can lead us to a sense of security and optimism as members of the Jewish community and of the family of humanity. The Siddur/prayerbook expresses gratitude to our ancestors for establishing a foundation for our community and to God for sharing with us the strength to reach out to others to provide them with freedom, care and support. We focus on aspects of life that are holy and unique that we might consider to be miracles even when we have created them with our own knowledge and insight. We say “thank you” for everything we have and we pray that peace will finally come to our world and encompass all of humanity and all of creation.
The ways in which we express ourselves vary from week to week on Friday night and Saturday morning. On the first Friday of the month, our 6:00 pm Family Service features the central prayers of our liturgy in a relaxed family setting that is open to members of all ages. A potluck Shabbat dinner follows that brings the generations together in Shabbat joy. The second service on the first Friday is an equally relaxed service that gives congregants a chance to take part in a discussion on an aspect of the weekly Torah portion with the goal of finding lessons for modern life. The “middle Fridays” of the month usually feature a Torah reading with a brief D’var Torah that expresses my current thoughts on the meaning we can derive from the ancient text. On the last Shabbat of the month, the “Shabbat Service for Renewal of Spirit” brings readings and music together to create a context that gives us a sense of peace and healing that can continue to guide us in the coming days. This service will again be preceded by a time for meditation each month.
Shabbat morning services are our most informal, with an opportunity for those present to share “miracles” in our lives, to engage in an in-depth discussion of the Torah portion for the week, and to sing and read prayers that we might not hear on Friday evening. When we reach our minyan of 10, we read Torah and still engage in a lively conversation about the text that has been handed down to us over the centuries.
We are now looking forward to our celebration of Chanukah, which begins on Tuesday, December 16. We know well that the Chanukiah/Menorah does not light itself. It needs us to put in the candles and kindle each light so that the glow will inspire us to new acts of preserving freedom and justice for all people. Think of our Shabbat worship like a Chanukiah. When we are here, together, the light from our souls will shine brightly and there will be a special spirit emanating from our Sanctuary, creating a stair-way/ladder to lofty places. Each of us can be like Jacob, making it possible to see that “God was in this place, and I, I did not know it.”
Best wishes for a happy Chanukah, with a hope that we will all find the light that is at the core of our lives and our souls.