This was a first. When I lead services or speak publicly, I have been known to tear up, have my voice crack, take a minute, and authentically show up to the moment, to the place. At this Friday night Shabbat service it was very different.
We were exploring the Torah where Jacob experienced a moment of awe directly from his dream vision. In his dream he received blessings from God and saw angels going up and down from earth to heaven. There were words like “stairway”, “awe”, “God’s house” and “gateway to heaven” in just a few sentences. The word, הַמָּקוֹם HaMakom, which literally means The Place, and is also understood as a name for God, was found numerous times throughout the reading.
Jacob awakens with awe in his heart and says, “There was sacredness here and I didn’t even know it!” And then he says מַה-נּוֹרָא, הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה Ma nora hamakom hazeh, “How awesome is this place!” We wondered together why Jacob was given such a profound vision and blessings, and why we are called Israelites, as descendants of Jacob who later becomes Israel. I mean, he wasn’t such a great guy-stealing blessings from his brother Esau, lying to his father, running away from Esau who wanted to kill him, and more.
According to Rabbi Jonathan Saks, one possibility we are called Israelites is because at the time of his dream vision Jacob was alone, scared and away from home. He wasn’t in a good place. And yet, he awoke to the consciousness that God was present. He felt God accompanying him and offering him blessings. Even in our worst days, even in the days of despair and hopelessness, we are invited to know we are never truly alone. This is what we learned from Jacob’s experience, and why we are his descendants. Maybe, this is what it means to be a Jew.
This Shabbat was unique. We could feel the impact of Jacob’s dream in the room. We experienced the sense that we are never alone. That’s what it means to be a Jew, an Israelite. I could have cried, but I didn’t. Not yet.
The heart was open. The love in the room was strong. The community was feeling it. And we sang, “MA NORA HAMAKOM HAZEH”, How awesome is THIS place! If we could have, we would have sang and danced for 10 minutes. But we had healing blessings to offer and people to remember who had died.
I sent healing to a young child I knew recovering from serious surgery. We sent love to friends we knew with COVID, ALS, Parkinsons, a broken rib, dementia, extensive dental work, etc. And we remembered our loved ones who had died.
During this time I was surprised to learn about the death of a beloved teacher I hadn’t seen in 40 years.* While holding space for others, the tears unexpectantly began to flow and flow and flow. The gates opened to memory and grief. The tears sang their songs of love and transformation. There was no stopping them. The heart remembered a 25-year-old learning and growing, passionate and creative, finding her way, guided by this teacher. Now he is in a new Place, finding his way.
I hadn’t known how much he had meant to me. I certainly would not have expected such a strong response to this news while I was leading a congregation. Normally I would have been able to stay focused and save my bigger tears for another time. But, like Jacob’s encounter, I was surprised to be swimming with the Sacred. This time, with Sacred Memory.
Even though it was awkward to have such big public emotion while leading a service, the surprise was in fact a blessing, held by a Sacredness beyond time and beyond words. The congregation was so supportive. I came to feel, very personally, “How Awesome is this Place!”
מַה-נּוֹרָא, הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה
*Peter Gabel, Zichrono livracha, may his memory be a blessing.