D’var Torah – Vayetzei

In one of the most powerful scenes in Torah, one that clearly begs to be interpreted, Jacob
encounters the Divine in a moment both intimate, and universal. This is Jacob’s moment of
promise – he is drawn into the same covenant to which his father and grandfather were called.
This land that you see before you, shall be yours.

But more than a connection to a particular land, the story also presents one of the most
modern understandings of a real communication with God in the Bible – as metaphor, this is a
story about prayer.

Jacob arrives “at a certain place.” Why does the text not give us an exact location?
Perhaps to avoid that site becoming a shrine in later generations, but perhaps because there is a
spiritual message inherent in the story. God, quite simply, exists everywhere – in every certain
place, not only or more intensely in the Land of Israel. Jacob says, “this is the gateway of
heaven. God was in this place, and I, I did not know it. It was me that arrived here unaware.”
This interaction exists more in Jacob’s psychology than in his geography. He has arrived
at a moment in his life – having left his father’s home, taken what was his, asserted himself in
opposition to his brother, and having struck out on his own. Far more than the name of the city,
the landscape and topography, the place you arrive is a Palace of Time, not of space.
Today there is no Temple that marks the location, no synagogue erected in Jacob’s honor.
There is no mountain either, no trail to the heavens, it is a rock in a desert of rocks, this gateway
to heaven is right here, this place is everyplace.

There is something special about a sanctuary; to build or renovate a synagogue allows a
community to create a symbol of intentionality, a sign of our dreams, an expression of our
values. In one beautiful Midrash, when the Temple is destroyed – fragments of the ancient stones
in Jerusalem were scattered – and every place where one shard fell back to earth a synagogue
was destined to be established years, or generations later.

But in truth a synagogue is merely a symbol, we are never as strong, as established as our
stones might suggest. Our community, in order to survive, must transcend the stones, so that we
might always dream of ladders stretching to the heavens, firmly rooted in the earth. Stones fall
and are shattered, but a vision of the Divine is lasting, angels ascending and descending travel
with you on life’s journey.

Our goal is not to stack stones one on top of the other to last to eternity, but to use these stones to
reach out in every direction, to create what we refer to today, as they did in the Bible – a Tene,
an Open Tent – portable Judaism, accessible, portable. Connected to tradition and history, and
yet vital, creative and engaging – God was in this place, and I, I did not know.
The idea of Open Tent Judaism is the idea that Judaism can and should be welcoming
enough to exist outside of Temple walls. Rather than building programs and asking people to
come to us, come to Shabbat, come to classes, be Jewish in our way, we build a tent large
enough to embrace Judaism on your terms, on the terms of anyone who chooses to cast their lot
with the Jewish people.

Let us look more closely at this dream of Jacob’s – the details become important. Notice
that the ladder is firmly rooted in the ground, as if to say that our community must also be firmly
rooted in reality. The angels’ first ascend and then descend, as if to say that they begin here on
Earth, not in the heavens – their work is here, their work is our work. We notice that Jacob has
his dream not at home, not from some place of establishment and comfort, but the opposite – this
is his pivotal, liminal moment – a moment of great transition and uncertainty – he is not sure yet
where he will find a home, a family for himself. Jacob is searching, like anyone of us would be
– searching for a place of belonging.

When he awakes, he is surprised to find that his home was right with him all along – God
was in this place, but it was something internal, Jacob wasn’t ready until now to find it.
We must do everything we can to ensure that when our fellow travelers on life’s journey
–whether they are in their 20s or 30s, or are reawakening to an interest in their own spirituality,
and for whatever reason they are ready to engage with Judaism, we must do everything we can to
ensure they find their own ladder to the heavens, right where they are. Any place and every
place is the right place to connect with our community, not only here in our sanctuary, and not
only with those who choose to be here on Shabbat.

There are angels all around us, and we ourselves might become the ladder, firmly rooted
in the ground, connecting this world of every day, with a sense of the Divine, reaching all the
way to heaven.

On this Thanksgiving Weekend, let us offer a prayer of thanks for the opportunity to be
together, for time with family and friends, and for a wealth of blessings we share around our
tables. But let us also dedicate that sense of gratitude to turn to others here in our midst – the
extend an invitation that we perhaps felt – the one that brought us here – to strangers here in this
room, and to the many Jews in our congregation who might yet be drawn into the Open Tent,
with visions of a ladder that might bring us closer to heaven.