Friday, December 9, 2016

Finding Meaning (and God) in every place – Parashat Vayaytzay - December 9, 2016

Rhonda, Adam, and Larry Karol
Confirmation 2002 at Temple Beth Sholom
Topeka, Kansas
What is it that gives life meaning? 
It might be our relationships,
Our hobbies and personal interests,
our past accomplishments,
Or our continuing involvement in the greater community.
We may realize what has meaning to us while we are moving through an experience
Or, only afterwards, when we have a moment of peace.
Sometimes the realization that something significant has happened to us hits us in the silence that follows a moment of joy or satisfaction.
This past weekend, I heard our one of our Youth group members talk about the feeling that participants have once they return home from regional events shared with their peers, including many friends. They call it withdrawal, something that, when I was a youth group member many years ago, would have been referred to as “letdown.”  It is that sense of having been present in moments unlike what we encounter in everyday life that can make a re-entry into our routine harder than we might expect.       
   The special, perhaps, even holy, nature of a particular experience may become clear to us afterwards because it is only when we do come back into our usual activities that we understand the lasting impact of where we were and what we did.
Temple Beth Sholom, Topeka, Kansas - Confirmation Class, 2002
   The description of Jacob’s dream of a ladder to the sky with angels going up and down on it has inspired artists as well as biblical commentators for centuries.
They have, in their own way, attempted to portray the contents of the dream and to communicate what this vision meant to Jacob and what we can learn from it.
The greatest lesson of this passage may not have to do with the identity or purpose of the angels on the ladder. 
   The central message is likely in Jacob’s reaction to it after he awoke.   He declared: “Why, ADONAI is in this place, and I, I did not know it!  How awe-inspiring is this place!  This is none other than a house of God, and that is the gate of heaven!”
   Jacob set up a stone as a remembrance of his dream and named the place, “House of God/Beit El/Beth El.”  That marker demonstrated that Jacob realized that what came to him that night was incredible, inspiring, and even life-changing. 
   Nowadays, we don’t tend to put up stones when something amazing happens to us.  
   We might tell a story of the event, or write about it, or create an artistic piece that might reflect its impact on us. 
   Or, these days, our marker for remembrance might be photographs that we have placed in an album on our coffee table or in a picture frame. 
    That means that the collected photos of weddings, bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, special birthdays, or retirement parties, or other images that we treasure, enable us to relive memories of those events not just as milestones, but as HOLY moments.
 They are holy because we want to remember them, and even if we don’t take the photo album out too often, we still know it’s there. Framed images are all around us as reminders of someone special or an important time.  They are like the pillar Jacob put up at Beth-El.  
    Judaism teaches that God is with us at all times.  It may be that, at or after those special occasions, we feel a touch of the divine in our lives more keenly.  
But the story of Jacob has one more lesson for us about how special any particular experience or place can be. 
Think about the setting in which Jacob found himself.  He was likely concerned about his future after leaving behind an angry brother from whom he stole a birthright and blessing, and a father who was likely aghast at what had occurred.  Jacob was alone, or so he thought.
   He laid down for the night with a plain stone as his head-rest.  
    It was just a non-descript location outdoors along his journey.  
The Torah says VAYIFGA BAMAKOM – he came upon the place.  It was specific, but it was also generic.
It could have been anywhere. 
   But this story tells us that the stone was more than a routine rock, the place was unlike any other, and that what could have been a simple and mundane moment in the life of a patriarch bore pivotal significance in Jacob’s personal tale.    
  This passage uses the Hebrew word MAKOM for place. 
   The Rabbis turned that word into HAMAKOM, a name for God that means the “omnipresent One,” God who is in everyone, and in every seen and unseen location in our world.
   That means that, if we keep our eyes, ears, minds and hearts open, we will be able to see something significant happen at almost any moment, even if the full understanding of its meaning comes only later. 
Or, perhaps, our sense that God is with us wherever we are may lead us to make something special happen.  We, as God’s partners, always have the capacity to infuse sanctity into our little corner of the universe.
Every minute of our lives and every place where we find ourselves carry the secret and the promise of Jacob’s dream: that we are always connected to what is holy in the world and in ourselves. 
 And so, may we frequently seek and find what is meaningful and sacred all around us, and may those discoveries direct us to approach every place and every person in the world with gratitude, wisdom and joy, so that our mutual inspiration will take us to a holy place.      

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