I own three watches, all given for special occasions, and all no longer working. This week they stopped keeping time. The first watch was given to me by my parents when I graduated from college. The second a gift from Susie to mark our tenth anniversary and the third from my in-laws when Susie and I announced our engagement.
“And 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 the gateway to heaven.’” (Genesis 28:16-17)
This week’s Torah portion opens with Jacob running from his brother Esau. Esau is plotting to kill his only brother after Jacob steals the birthright and blessing. On this journey Jacob finds a place to sleep. He dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and down. He awakes and proclaims that God is where he now sits and stands. He names the place Beth El—the House of God.
From this story we learn that Jacob lives in the present. It this affirmation and sanctification of the present that allows him to move our biblical story forward. His wife Rachel however holds on to the past. Also in this week’s portion we read of Rachel clinging to the past when we see Jacob and his family parting company with his father in law. Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel moves forward with great difficulty. “Meanwhile Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household idols. Jacob kept Laban the Aramean in the dark (literally, Jacob stole the heart of Laban), not telling him that he was fleeing.” (Genesis 31:19-20)
Our sages understand Rachel’s act of stealing her father’s idols as an act of piety. They understand her theft as an attempt to keep their father far from the sin of idolatry. I however understand her theft as a way of holding on to the past and to her father’s house. She is married to a man who is constantly on the run. He flees from his brother. He runs from her father. He dreams of God. He holds lofty visions in his heart. Her life with Jacob is unsettling. Such is the life of one of our Torah’s greatest heroes, and of course the life of the woman he loves. Jacob's wife Rachel wishes to hold on to her childhood and her past.
Her desire is understandable. Jacob however refuses to be bound to the past. He bows to the God of Abraham and Isaac but his relationship with God is his own. He lives in the present, sometimes perhaps brazenly and other times even rashly, but once he journeys forward he only looks ahead and never behind.
In a week when we mark both Veterans Day and Kristallnacht my question is: how do we live in the present while holding on to the past? How do we give homage to the past without it weighing down the present? How do we mark the past as sacred without allowing it to become an idol? Can we live fully in the present while still remembering the past?
It is our answers to these questions that help us construct our religious faith. Each of us must ask day in and day out, am I more like Rachel or Jacob?
And the watches, they are all working again. It was only a matter of the batteries.