Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayeitzei

I once wrote that dreams are the pieces of art that our hands and hearts need to become skilled enough to create. Were it not for the dreams of equality, freedom, of justice, and of peace, the great work that moves this world forward could never have been done. Whether it is the harnessing of electricity, the movement of sound, the beat of an artificial heart, or the ability for diverse people to live, work, and worship in a common freedom, the evolutions that bring about the things we cherish in life all began with a dream.

Dreams play a large role in the Bible. The prophets see God in dreams. Joseph interprets dreams. This week, Jacob has a dream; perhaps the most famous dream in the Torah. He reaches Beth El and stops for the night. He lays his head on the rock and has a dream. God is atop a tall staircase to the heavens. The angels are ascending and descending. In this dream, Jacob hears the voice of God beckoning, affirming that Jacob is not alone on this journey away from the death threats his brother spewedtoward the homeland of his cousins. He awakes from this dream and exclaims, “WOW! God was in this place, and I, I had not known it!” So profound is this experience that many in our tradition argue that it is this event that established a need for the Ma-ariv (evening) service. More profoundly, whatever the historicity (or lack thereof) of this story, faith is tied to people having these “Wow!” moments.

Some manifest in hearing the still small voice inside that drives you to see and believe beyond what you had been previously able to see or believe. Sometimes this epiphany hits like the crash of thunder, undermining and subverting all sorts of ideas once held sacred that shatter in the wake of the experience. No matter how loud or how silent, each absolutely changes the world of the one whose eyes open anew. Certainly we need to celebrate these moments of deepening faith. When they happen for others, we need to celebrate them.

Three years ago, I learned a tremendous lesson of faith, as a dear friend, Peter Schogol celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. He grew up as a secular Jew in New York. His journey is a long one, filled with the denial of anything divine. Over the course of time, he never stopped wrestling with faith, and found himself, at the age of 60, believing in God and wanting to celebrate that he was now accepting his status as a Bar Mitzvah. This is a sweet story, but there is more. 

While he and I had been wrestling with this for several years, his greatest epiphany came in learning that he had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and the only diagnosis for this disease is still a horrific and painful death. At a time when people would lose faith and question why they deserved such a fate, Peter was amazing in his own epiphanic experience. Jacob’s dream was Peter’s. To quote Peter, “I never dreamt I would do this.” God made no sense to him until the moment, that lost in the wilderness, he realized how much baggage we throw onto God, and how present divinity can be, if we only open ourselves … even and especially when God can offer no promises for the future. Peter, in a very weakened voice, told us of his journey to faith, and in the end, he announced, that he had figured out how personal God can be, “My God has ALS, too.”

We may not know what God is, but God is here. My journey into the Rabbinate began with a dream at Kutz Camp in New Jersey, as I looked out over a lake in the middle of Shabbat morning worship. I was there for a seminar on lay leadership; learning to help my Rabbi in Little Rock, Arkansas.  While confessing to not focusing on our worship, I was daydreaming about the calm of the lake and the setting of the camp, the relationships I had forged there and those that led me there. Even while I prayed then that I could be meaningful in helping others, I never dreamt how deeply people could impact my life.

While I am the “faithful” leader of this flock, I find, nearly every day, just how deeply I need this flock to teach me and hold me. I am a man of faith, and every day, I find myself giving thanks for the incredible blessings that people share with me. This Shabbat of Vayaetze, though, will always be reserved for Peter, and one of the most powerful and awesome testimonies of faith I could ever experience. 

Folks, people have amazing stories to share. We pass each other by without realizing the magnitude of impact we can have on each other’s lives. I have a sign in my office that reads, “Dreams are Free.” Dreams are the experiences that our psychology experiences whatever our physiology is doing. When we learn to pay attention to our dreams, amazing doors of faith open for us, and amazing things happen in our world. Dreams are the answers to the questions we have not yet figured out how to ask, and the Talmud teaches us that a dream unexamined is like a mailed letter unopened. May our dreams yield answers on how to save the world and may we have the faith to act in ways that make these dreams real. Shabbat Shalom.