We live in a self-indulgent time. One of the best examples of our era's trend toward self-indulgence is the "Travel List Challenge's 100 Places to Visit Before You Die."1 On this Web page, users are asked to check off which of the 100 author-recommended places in the world they have visited. The places range from North American sites like the Smithsonian Museum, the Washington Monument, and the Empire State Building to exotic, faraway destinations like the Taj Mahal in India, Machu Pichu in Peru, and the Great Wall of China. It's an interesting exercise, allowing us to recall some great memories of places we've seen.
But like much of what we find on social media, it's also a way show that our life is OK—maybe even better than OK—in comparison to that of our friends.
Let's say you've been to 30 of those places—not a bad score. Your passport is respectfully worn. And yet, you see on Facebook that some "friends" will have visited a lot more—twice as many, say—demonstrating for all that they make more money than you do, have more free time, and in general enjoy lives a million times more exciting than yours. Isn't social media great?
In fact, looking at a list of those 100 places might actually be depressing. Most of us will never get to half of them due to limitations of time, health, money, or obligations. It turns out that most people will never get to see most of the world.
But is seeing 100 places before you die really that important? Let's think about another perspective. If God is everywhere, then anywhere we find ourselves is a place we should want to be.
In this week's Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob certainly wasn't checking Facebook when he was on his way to Haran. He knew Haran was the place he had to go to get away from his angry and murderous older twin brother Esau. Jacob had cheated his brother out of their father's blessing and inheritance, and now Jacob was fleeing to his ancestral home to save himself and hopefully to find a wife. Haran was the only place he was interested in checking off before he died. It was the dying that got his attention.
On the way, Jacob stops at a "certain place" for the night (Genesis 28:11). Not only is it not on any list, he also doesn't even know its name. Jacob pulls up a stone for a pillow and falls into a weary sleep. He has a dream: a "ladder set on the ground, with its top reaching to heaven; and lo—angels of God going up and coming down on it" (28:12). Scholars think that the Hebrew word for "ladder" here actually corresponds to something more like a ziggurat or stepped pyramid of the type you might find at Chichen Itza, which, of course, actually is on the "100 places" list.
Genesis tells us that God "stood beside" Jacob and spoke reassuringly to him about the covenant promise that God had given to Jacob's grandfather Abraham (28:13). It was a promise of numerous offspring and a family through which "all the families of the earth shall find blessing" (28:14). Despite his devious deception in stealing his brother's birthright, and despite being the younger brother, Jacob was going to be the one through whom God's redemptive plan would unfold.
The best is what God promises Jacob: "And here I am, with you: I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you." (28:15).
Jacob would not be traveling the world but he would have something that each of us should desire: the very presence of God. No matter where he traveled, no matter what dangers awaited him in front of and behind him on the journey, God was going to be with him and keep him. Wherever Jacob was, God was going to be there.
When Jacob awoke from his dream, the angel staircase was gone and all that was left was the rock he laid his head on. Jacob took that rock and poured oil on it as a way of marking it as sacred. "Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!" says Jacob as he rubs the sleep out of his eyes (28:16). "How awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven" (28:17). He was fearful but also delighted to realize that what had been a nowhere place was now a somewhere place because God had been there.
Jacob came to understand an important truth that no social media questionnaire can ever capture: It doesn't matter where you've been—it only matters that God is with you wherever you are. Every place is sacred, every place is holy, every place is important, because you are there and God promises to be there, too—even in those places that feel like a spiritual desert. And sometimes, it is the apparently God-forsaken places that become the most holy because God's already there, even if we did not know it at first.
1. "The Travel List Challenge's 100 Places to Visit Before You Die," see www.listchallenges.com/100-places-to-visit
Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago, IL. He is the coordinating editor of the new High Holiday prayer book, Mishkan HaNefesh (CCAR). He has a doctorate in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and has published five books, most recently Love Tales from the Talmud (URJ Press) and Saying No and Letting Go: Jewish Wisdom on Making Room for What Matters Most (Jewish Lights).