It is, of course, all a grand illusion. Nothing stays the same. The universe is in constant motion around us, and our lives are all in a perpetual state of flux. Some of it is growth, some of it decay, and some is just random movement and variation. We are ever changing.
Most of the time, we don't notice. It is only in those times of upheaval that we open our eyes, look around, and ask, "What happened? When did everything change?"
Jacob had such a moment of realization. It turned his understanding of himself and of his world upside-down.
From before his birth, Jacob had been engaged in a power struggle with his twin brother, Esau. The boys wrestled in Rebecca's belly, so much so that she cried out in pain, "If so, why do I exist?" (Genesis 25:22). Striving with Esau was just part of what defined Jacob's identity — it was part of his stable understanding of himself. That is who he was when he earned the name Jacob, which means "heel," by grasping onto Esau's heel when they were born, trying to beat his brother to be first out of the womb. It was who he was when he got Esau to sell him his birthright for a bowl of red lentil stew.
This also was Jacob when he tricked his blind father into giving him the blessing intended for Esau. However, Jacob had not noticed over the years that his brother was reaching a breaking point. It was only when Jacob finally took from Esau the only thing he had left that marked him as the favorite son that Jacob's world turned upside-down. Enraged, Esau threatened to kill Jacob, and the younger brother had to run away to save his life. He had not seen it coming.
This week's Torah portion (Vayeitzei) begins with the words: "Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran" (Genesis 28:10). Jacob was running to escape his past, trying to get away from what had seemed a stable reality. He had always been at odds with Esau, but now he noticed what a volatile situation he had created for himself. Suddenly, his life was changed and would never be the same again. On the road, he spent the night on a hilltop and fell asleep using a rock as a pillow.
Jacob had a dream that night in which he had a vision of a world that is constantly changing. Angels stood at the top of a ladder and at its foot. He saw the angels "going up and coming down" (Genesis 28:12). It was an image of the universe as it truly is — constantly in motion, constantly changing, always in flux, with God standing at the top of the perpetual motion ladder.
Jacob awoke and realized the sanctity of his new insight. When he resumed his journey, he was no longer just running away from his brother, he also was heading toward his next destination. The text tells us, "Jacob resumed his journey and came to the land of the Easterners" (Genesis 29:1). He noticed that, in life, every departure is also an arrival. We are all creatures in motion, always departing from the past as we head to the future, always becoming something different than we were a moment before.
That has been a theme in my life in the past few weeks. As some readers of this blog know, I announced to Temple Beit HaYam last month that I will be leaving the congregation at the end of June. I am currently in a process of seeking a new spiritual home and a new path to walk in life. The process has put me on a hilltop from which I am taking a big-picture view of my life, noticing the constant motion, feeling the flow of the angels that interrupt the useful illusion of life's stability.
I find myself, once again, saying goodbye and hello simultaneously. I am keenly aware of motion away and motion toward. My eyes are newly open to the ways in which my life is turned upside-down.
It is hard, and sometimes sad, to begin the process of leaving a place that has meant so much to me. It is exciting and anxiety provoking to encounter new possibilities, to explore possible futures, and to imagine the next step of the journey. Like Jacob, I am looking back over my shoulder at what I leave behind, looking forward to what is to come, and noticing God's presence standing over it all.
I also am reminded that this is the nature of life. We always are changing, growing, becoming. Those angels are always marching up and down the ladder. Life is a series of many new births and many small deaths. Growth and decay. Evolution and flow. This is who we are. I am grateful for the chance to notice, and for the way that life intermittently reveals its wonders.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Ten Thoughts About Being a Congregational Rabbi
Mas'ei: The Torah of Now