Thursday, December 1, 2011

Vayetzei

Sometimes dreams must be nurtured by venturing off alone, unsheltered by friends, family and community.

“Jacob left Beersheva, and set out for Haran.  He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night…  He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.”  (Genesis 28:10-12)

Jacob, our hero, is actually running from his brother Esau who has threatened to kill him after he stole the birthright.  Throughout Jacob’s early life he enjoys the protecting love of his mother Rebekah who engineered the plot to deceive her husband Isaac and steal the birthright from Esau.  Our Torah portion begins with Jacob on the run.  He is alone in the desert wilderness.

And he is alone with his dreams.

And so I have been thinking that we must learn to be alone in order to rediscover our dreams.  Too often people confuse being alone with loneliness.  They fight against loneliness and therefore avoid being alone.  Or they think that listening to music on noise cancelling headphones is to be alone.  As much as I love and value listening to music, it is not the same as being alone with our thoughts.  Modern day portable electronics allow me to swim among others even though I might be standing by myself.

To be alone is instead to be by myself, to be alone with my thoughts.

Thus we must venture out alone.  Have you ever gone for a walk by yourself?  There by yourself you can be in tune with the sounds of nature.  Have you ever sat and rather than turn on the TV to keep you company been at ease with your own thoughts?  Rarely do we allow ourselves to be alone, do we allow ourselves solitary moments when we could be offered flashes of introspection and inspiration.  Even when driving in our cars we surround ourselves with the radio’s music (or SiriusXM or the DVD player) and the chatter of cell phones.  On walks we even take hold of the leash of our pets or arrange for friends to join us.

Years ago I participated in an Outward Bound survival course.  Central to the program was the solo when each of the participants was placed alone on an island for three days.  We were supplied with plenty of water but no food.  We were required to build a makeshift shelter for ourselves.  We were not allowed any reading materials or portable electronics.  Most significant we were not allowed to bring a watch.

I still remember the name of my island “Little Thoroughfare.”  It was a tiny, uncharted island off the coast of Maine.  It rained for all but two hours of the three days.  I was hungry and cold the entire time.

Our instructors sent us to our solo with some advice I still remember.  “If you are lonely on your solo, remember the company you are keeping.”  I continue to reflect on those words and my solo experience.  It was not the hunger or the cold that was the most difficult.  It was instead the lack of human contact.  And it was especially that I could not be sure what time it was.  Was it two hours until dark?  Would it be an hour before the boat would come to pick me up and I would again see my friends?  Even when we are alone, we count the hours and minutes until others will join us.

Despite the fact that Judaism most values community and togetherness sometimes the greatest teachings are found and dreams are born when we are by ourselves.   It is not just that we must allow our children to make their way on their own.  Like Rebekah we must indeed send them off by themselves.  We must also allow ourselves to be alone.  Instead we rely on the company of iPods and cellphones, radio and TV.  We fear being by ourselves.  And so we run from our dreams.  Jacob instead runs towards them.

Never be afraid to be alone with your dreams.

Next week Jacob will become Israel after wrestling with an angel.  That story begins with the words:  “And Jacob was left alone.”  (Genesis 32:25)

Our hero was again alone.  And in this moment the dream of Israel was also born.

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