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“Mystery of Traffic,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

Friday, November 12, 2021

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we draw near to Shabbat.

You can listen to it as a podcast here.

It is called Jacob’s ladder but it really doesn’t belong to him.

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob had to leave to save his own life. That is because he colluded with his mother, Rebekah, to steal the blessing of the first born from his twin, Esau, who should have received it from his elderly, seeing-impaired father, Isaac.

The portion opens as Jacob stopped for the night on his journey to Haran. With a stone as a pillow, he dreamt of a ladder with angels ascending and descending. God was present there and informed Jacob that God would be with him. When Jacob awoke, he recognized something holy had happened and declared the place and the experience as awe inspiring. “This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”

Lying on the ground, Jacob gazed upward and experienced what Rabbi Chaim Stern called “Mysteries of mysteries—the traffic between heaven and earth!”

There is beauty in the mystery of that occurrence. Jacob can only explain it by expressing his amazement. Albert Einstein wrote:

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. One who knows it not, who can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. It was the experience of mystery—and awe–that engendered religion. (The World as I See It)

The Biblical author of this episode did not dwell on the mystery. Instead, an unfolding of a realization occurred by the willingness of Jacob to sense the great wonder in the moment.

The ladder did not belong to him nor did the traffic caused by the angels. What he did own was that he noticed it all. Despite his past egregious behavior regarding the blessing, that moment, through the night and into the morning, brought about more than awakening from his sleep and his dream. Jacob embraced the mystery.

Abraham Joshua Heschel regarded such a recognition as prayer. He said:

To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings—the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer for the mystery in which we live. (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity)

The Talmud (Berachot 26b) states that Jacob instituted the evening prayer because he arrived at the place in the evening and encountered the divine through the night. Jacob received the surprise and the mystery of living when he dreamed and when he awoke. This will not be the only time he has such a prayerful encounter.

May this Shabbat bring us into the mystery and help us emerge awe inspired.

Shabbat Shalom!

Connect with me here. I look forward to corresponding with you and to hearing your thoughts.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Elaine Zecher