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Vayetzei Sermon

In this week’s portion Jacob journeys into the desert wilderness on his own and has a dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels going up and down on it.  It is an extraordinary passage.  He awakens from the dream and exclaims, “Surely the Lord 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 the gateway to heaven.”  (Genesis 28)

As I reflect on his experience two things come to light.  #1.  He ventured on this journey without his parents.  Even his overprotective mother Rebekah sent him on this journey on his own.  And #2.  He wandered by himself.

The first point is obvious.  We have to let our children go to experience on their own, to succeed and fail on their own.  Too often parents do things for children that they should do for themselves.  Parents write their children’s bar/bat mitzvah speeches and even their college papers.  How can you make it in the world if your parents do all of the hard work?  Our children must learn to make it through the world on their own!

On the second point I wish to dwell in more detail.  This point runs counter to Judaism’s greatest teaching.  Judaism teaches that we are at our best when we are with others.  We reach greater heights when we are in community.  The group lifts us to do better, to be better versions of our individual selves.

Yet here we see Jacob reaching unimaginable heights when on his own.  He is alone in the desert wilderness by himself.  He is alone with his thoughts.

It occurs to me that we do not allow ourselves to truly be alone.  We are so plugged in that we do not sit quietly and think.  We do not walk the streets or through nature unplugged.

Recently there was a Shabbat unplugged campaign.  It suggested that we should shun electronic devices on Shabbat.  Obviously they are forbidden according to Jewish tradition.  But the reason we might do away with these devices is not so much because of the traditional prohibition but so that we can learn again to be alone.

Our children especially need constant electronic stimulation.  They move from DVD players to computers to iPhones.  They constantly text or Facebook.  Can they still be alone with themselves and their thoughts?  How can you really come up with an original idea with all of that noise?

My favorite places to walk are of course parks and Jerusalem.  There you can be at one with nature.  You can listen to the sounds of nature—and the sounds of your own thoughts.  Sometimes I admit I walk the streets of Jerusalem talking on my cellphone or listening to my iPod.  Other times I walk the streets and think to myself and I am at one with this city.  In Jerusalem especially as Shabbat descends there is only you and the city.

Jacob teaches us important lessons for our own day.  Jacob must set out by himself in order to dream.  While the community does indeed make us better, we need to be alone with our thoughts, unplugged from the world, in order to be creative.  The clatter of modern life can sometimes get in the way of dreams.  And dreams are the things that carry us into the future.