What do you call Thanksgiving during a pandemic? Jacob has the answer.

Here’s a riddle for you: What do you call Thanksgiving during a pandemic? Answer to follow.

In this week’s Torah reading — Parashat Veyetzei, Genesis 28:10-32:3 — we encounter our forefather Jacob departing his home in Beersheva to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. Recall that Esau was not too happy that Jacob fooled their father, Isaac, into bestowing the blessing of the first born upon Jacob, when in fact, Esau was the first born and legitimately due the blessing. Told by their mother that Esau was planning to kill him, Jacob unhesitatingly heeded her advice and got the heck out of Beersheva. Before Jacob left for Haran, though, Isaac bade Jacob to find a bride from among his kinsmen there. 

Imagine how stressed Jacob must have been then! Not only might his vengeful brother have been in hot pursuit. Not only was the pressure on him to find a bride. But he was also leaving the comfort and safety of his home. Tradition presents Jacob as a homebody, the favorite of his mother, bookish. He was now way out of his element! Had any of us been Jacob, our anxiety levels would have been through the roof.

It was in that state of emotional and physical vulnerability that Jacob received his first prophecy from the Divine. Weary from his travels, Jacob found a place to lie down for the night. He did what any of us would have done: he found a comfy stone to lay his head on and went to sleep. While he was sleeping, Jacob dreamt of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven as God stood by his side promising him land, progeny and protection. It’s a wonder that Jacob could sleep at all, nevermind have a dream of such magnitude!

When Jacob awoke from his dream he said, “Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.” Then, to mark this transformative event, Jacob makes a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return safely to my father’s house — Adonai shall be my God.” Then he set up a pillar, a sacred marker, so future generations could build on that spot a House of God.

Wait just a second. Did Jacob just ask God to give him “bread to eat and clothing to wear?” That’s odd. He didn’t ask that God help him find a beautiful wife and vanquish Esau?

Now I get it! I could never figure out what God saw in Jacob. The Torah doesn’t portray Jacob as especially worthy of God’s blessing, and I’ve never found the midrashim — the rabbis’ creative readings between the lines of the Torah — at all convincing. But here it is! Of all the things Jacob could have prayed for in that moment, he prayed not for spectacular miracles but for bread and clothing — for those things that he already had. At that moment, I believe, Jacob thought, “My brother may harm me and I may not find the bride of my dreams. Still, all I ask is that God sustain me and let me keep my dignity. And should I die, let me find repose in the land of my fathers.”

Medieval biblical commentators implicitly criticize Jacob for having fallen asleep in that place. They point out that if Jacob had known God was in the place, he wouldn’t have gone to sleep in the first place. “I would have prepared myself to receive prophecy,” they imagine Jacob saying. But our sages overlook that aspect of Jacob that he had in common with all other prophets: he wasn’t expecting a personal relationship with God and he certainly didn’t feel worthy of God’s prophecy. He was too busy facing the exigencies of life and, despite the pressures that beset him, he was grateful just for “bread to eat and clothing to wear.” Had Jacob known God was in that place and held vigil throughout the night, God might never have appeared to him. It was specifically because Jacob had no grand expectations of God that God permitted him to fall asleep there and appeared to Jacob in a dream.

Consider this: we are at our must humble and vulnerable when we are asleep. We cannot sing our praises nor fight our foes when we are unconscious. Jacob may not have been a great role model for future generations, but here we find him at the peak of humility and vulnerability. That’s the model that the Torah wants us to follow. Jacob wakes up and expresses his gratitude for the simple things: bread and clothing. Maybe that’s why our traditional morning services also begin with expressions of gratitude for the little things: food, clothing, the ability to function. No matter what prophecy might come to us in our dreams, we must still be grateful for the basics, just as Jacob was.

And so, here we are, hunkering down in fear of the coronavirus. We pray that God, scientists, government officials and our neighbors will come together to vanquish this foe. Anyone who is heeding the advice of the CDC and refraining from traditional gatherings with family and friends is praying that the time will be near when we can again experience the hugs, kisses, laughter and — just maybe — heated exchanges that make those gatherings so special. In this moment of time, we are no different from Jacob.

Fearful of Covid-19, longing for a loving embrace, overcome with uncertainty, what are we to give thanks for this Thanksgiving? Jacob has given us the answer. We are to give thanks for God’s presence in our lives and for the simple things that sustain us and give us dignity. We have a choice: we can focus on what we lack due to circumstance or we can focus on all that we have by the grace of God. If we pay attention to the subtle hint in this week’s Torah portion, we’ll choose the latter. And when we do, we’ll discover the answer to our riddle.

Thanksgiving during a pandemic is… Thanksgiving.

Enjoy this time as best you can, and give thanks for love and grace in abundance.

Bivrachot/With blessings,
Rabbi Dan

To Find God, Stop Trying So Hard. Once You’ve Found God, Try Harder.

Parashat Vayetzei / פרשת ויצא
Torah Portion: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and this is the gateway to heaven.” (Gen. 28:16-17)

As we live our lives distracted by the concerns of the workaday world, we tend to confine our moments of religiosity to sacred occasions in houses of worship. We go to synagogue to experience God. Sometimes it feels like a spiritual experience. Sometimes it doesn’t. Because we seek out such moments of transcendence only when we’re in synagogue, we harbor expectations and struggle to feel something spiritual, something like an encounter with God. We don’t struggle to encounter God while we’re at the gym, at work, or while shopping. Rather, we save our strength for that struggle for when we’re at our house of worship.

Given this reality for many, Vayeitze has two things to tell us: First, to experience God’s presence, stop trying so hard; second, to appreciate when you are in God’s presence, try harder. Indeed, the parashah seems to be directing us to two diametrically opposed approaches to religiosity. Chill, but be aware. In truth, the Torah is teaching us that our most profound encounters with God may very well come at the most unexpected moments, but for those encounters to be transformative, we need to recognize their profundity and respond with gratitude and wonder.

We have here a story of a patriarch who, during his travels, lies down for the night in an open space and is visited quite unexpectedly by angels and by God. It is literally in the middle of nowhere that God speaks to Jacob and reiterates the promise God had made with Abraham and Isaac before him: to become a great nation in a great land. Jacob constructs an altar at that place in the morning (Gen. 28:18), but he hadn’t done anything special the night before to prepare himself for his encounter with God, nor had he done anything special to merit such an encounter. It just happened.

But while God appears in Jacob’s sleep at a random moment in a random place, Jacob’s response to the experience is anything but random. Jacob marks his experience with words of awe, an expression of gratitude, and a vow to serve God always (28:18-22). He names that place Beit El, “House of God.” In other words, Jacob doesn’t take the experience for granted. He says, “God was in this place. This is God’s abode, the gateway to heaven.”

Just this week, I found myself someplace indoors waiting out an hour-long downpour before I could get to my car without getting completely soaked. My unwitting companion for that hour was a recent widow, who also wanted to avoid getting wet. So we sat in the lobby and chatted about politics, volunteerism, and family. A casual observer might have seen this as a routine encounter on a rainy day, or perhaps, as an ordeal for me. In fact, it was both of these, but more.

I choose to believe that my hour with this widow was a religious experience. It was an hour of connecting with someone I had never connected with before, of learning about who she is and what she cares about. It was an hour of conversation with someone who, with the passing of her husband, now craves connection. From my perspective, the world became a little bigger in that hour. I grew to know his person better. I was challenged by what she said to see things in a new light. This routine and somewhat trying encounter was also a God-filled experience.

I’m not quite ready to call my hour with this woman “awesome,” but not all religious experiences are awesome. Some are serene. Some are energizing. The awesome ones are rare and memorable. True. The secret, though, is not to discount the others. We need to be aware enough to say “God is in this place, too. In this moment of connection or serenity or excitement, I feel part of something larger than myself.”  That’s what I said to myself when the rain let up and I was finally able to get to my car.

None of this is to say, I don’t also look for God in synagogue. However, I find my time worshipping in synagogue is significantly more meaningful when I’ve been able to see God in the everyday randomness of life. I can show up on Shabbat and not feel that this is my one chance at spirituality this week. I can show up with gratitude for having known God’s presence in the ordinary and, therefore, not strain to feel it in this single moment. I can relax and enjoy my time with friends and community and let the words of the prayers transport me to another time and place.

When I stop trying to have a religious experience in synagogue, I’m often surprised to find that even in the sanctuary I am in God’s presence. While reciting prayers is not exactly the same as dreaming about God and angels as I lay asleep by the roadside with my head on a rock, it can be every bit as awesome. And I want to be as ready for that possibility at that moment as when I’m hanging out in the lobby schmoozing with a stranger.

May we find God without trying and be fortunate enough to say from time to time, “How awesome is this place!”

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan