As a rabbinical student in Israel I camped out with my classmates under a star-glutted Negev sky to see Comet Hyakutake burn its trail through the night. It was a Shehecheyanu moment, and we offered the blessing with wide eyes.
I imagine that some wilderness wanderer may have felt the same thing upon seeing Comet Hyakutake when she passed this way before, 17,500 years ago. Relatively recently, only about 4,000 years ago, a nomad named Jacob is said to have felt the same thing on his journey, a short distance from our campsite.
"Coming upon a [certain] place, he passed the night there, for the sun was setting; taking one of the stones of the place, he made it his head-rest as he lay down in that place"(Genesis 28:11). The story is told in this week's parashah, Vayeitzei . Three times in a single verse we find the word "place," makom, inviting us to speculate on the mystical qualities of this particular spot. What makes it special? Is it a natural feature, a mountain, or an oasis? Is it a rainbow or a comet? Maybe it is a supernatural sight, like the Burning Bush?
No. It is a place of dirt and rocks. It lacks any distinguishing feature as much as it lacks a proper name. Jacob arrives there alone and rests his weary head on a stone. He is a long way from home for the first time in his life.
Jacob "dreamed, and lo—a ladder was set on the ground, with its top reaching to heaven, and lo—angels of God going up and coming down on it. . . . Waking from his sleep, Jacob said, 'Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!' He was awestruck, and said, 'How awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!'" (Genesis 28:12, 28:16-17). The place itself hadn't changed, but Jacob had. He discovered that inspiration and blessing can come to us in any place if we but harness the vision.
These words of Torah arrive in poetic symmetry with Thanksgiving. And so we ask, as we do every year, "For what do we give thanks?" Perhaps the answers come less easily these days. It's easy to give thanks when jobs abound, when our children know only peace. Today, the housing market alone drives many to despondency. The protracted war in Iraq exacts a burdensome toll on human lives and the American psyche. The horizon looms with the hazy uncertainty of climate change and our dependency on diminishing oil reserves. Who can blame a person for feeling discouraged and depleted? I'm reminded of the story of two cantankerous old men who are complaining about how miserable life can be. One says to the other, "You know, sometimes I think it's better not to have been born at all." "True,"says his friend, "but how many people are that lucky?"
Amid this wilderness, can we, with Jacob, yet find cause to say, "Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it"?
In the wilderness, a place devoid of life, Jacob found reason to celebrate his life, to give thanks for his journey, and to look to the future with hope. So we must try.
The Psalmist, a certified expert in the art of giving thanks, wrote, "Let all that has within it the breath of life praise God: Hallelujah!" (Psalm 150:6).
Obstacles to feeling joy and contentment are real and serious. In truth, the daily grind erodes our gratitude at least as much as the devastating headlines.
A bit of Chasidic wisdom notes that "just as the hand, held before the eye, can hide the tallest mountain, so the routine of everyday life can keep us from seeing the vast radiance and secret wonders that fill the world. "Where a wilderness had loomed, Jacob found a place where earth and heaven met: a ladder rooted in that place (it could have been any place) that reached to a place of radiance.
Life is filled with Shehecheyanu moments. Of course we say that requisite blessing at weddings and holidays and life-altering occasions. But tradition in fact instructs us to reciteShehecheyanu upon building a new house or when buying new vessels—pots and pans and the like—or when putting on new clothes. We say it when we taste the first fruit of a new season.
Maybe we should pause to give thanks every time we're about to sit down to a good meal—not just this Thursday. Perhaps for this very reason, the traditional blessing recited over bread,HaMotzi , is one of the best-known known Hebrew blessings (see Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy [New York: William Morrow & Co., 1991], p. 603).
In the movie Manhattan, Woody Allen's love-struck character catalogs a list of "reasons that made life worth living."It's deceptively simple stuff. "Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong's recording of 'Potato Head Blues,' Swedish movies, Flaubert's Sentimental Education, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Apples and Pears by Cézanne, the crabs at Sam Wo's, [and, finally, his love] Tracy's face"(transcribed by Jonathan Blake).
Take a few minutes to make your list. As you write it down, you may see a ladder that connects the terrestrial to the celestial. We pass them by every day, as we walk in awe-inspiring places, yet do not know it. Cast your eyes to the simple things that give you joy and peace and you may glimpse a sacred stairway. They are everywhere, inviting us to ascend.
Rabbi Jonathan E. Blake is the senior rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York.