Between Luz and Beit El, the World as It Is and the World as It Should Be©

Between Luz and Beit El, the World as It Is and the World as It Should Be© by Rabbi David Baum
Delivered on November 28th, 2009
Parashat Vayetzei

While I was a fourth year student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I was invited to something called a “house meeting”.  I had no idea what this meeting would be, or what the organizers wanted me to say, but I went anyway.  I sat around a table while one of my classmates asked us all a simple question:  what keeps you up at night?  Everyone around the room told a story, some were about healthcare, others about child care, and then it was my turn.  I told a story about something I experienced as a student.  Years before, the seminary had some financial difficulties and had to make money fast.  The Seminary chose to sell a property that they owned on 103rd and Broadway which was supposed to be graduate student housing.  No one was consulted about this, especially not the graduate students who had the most to lose.  But I was most upset about the fact that my fellow students did not say a word, what kept me up at night was apathy.  There was a woman who was sitting in the corner taking notes.  After the meeting, she approached me, introduced herself, and asked me, “Can we have a one to one?”  She sensed a hunger inside of me and wanted to meet with me, to have a one to one, in order to create a public relationship.  This woman, a community organizer named Jeannie Appleman, became one of my greatest mentors and teachers. 
That moment was the true beginning of my rabbinate.  It was where I learned about the hunger inside of all us, a voice that asks the basic question:  why does the world have to be this way?  This moment is when I woke up and became aware, and this theme of dreaming and waking up are in our parashah.   
This Shabbat contains a very famous story about Jacob and the ladder, and I would propose that this was a defining moment in his life. 
Parashat Vayetzei opens up with a peculiar scene.  Jacob has just left his home for a foreign land.  Unlike his grandfather’s journey which was ordered by God in his Lech Lecha moment to go a promised land, Jacob is forced to go to away from the promised land without God’s presence.  Up until this point, Jacob has been a wandering person, lost in many ways.   The text states that he came upon a makom, a place, but this place is yet unnamed.  The Torah also states that he had stopped there for night because the sun had set.  Jacob is totally alone, and is surrounded by darkness.  And it is at this moment that everything changes. 
Jacob laid down for the night and dreamed.  He dreamed of a world unlike the world he was living.  Jacob was only living in the world as it is, a world filled of limitations where the only thing that mattered was himself – his time sitting alone in the tent, his birthright, his life that had to be saved.  This world is a world without angels, a world without vision, a world without divinity.  As Jacob dreamed, he sees a stairway to heaven, where angels were going up and coming down.  The world he sees above is the world as it should be.  This world is a world of extreme idealism that rejects the material world as corrupt.  This world as should be is just as dangerous as the world as it is be because it leads to the individual withdrawing from public life because they do not want to live in an imperfect world. 
As Jacob sees the two worlds, God appears standing right next to him and blesses him, telling him that he will not be alone.  By appearing in this middle ground, in between the world as it is, the extremely materialistic earth, and the world as it should be, the overly idealistic heavens, God gives Jacob a message.  His destiny is to live in tension between these two worlds.  Living in tension between the two worlds means that he must care about himself, but not at the cost of the morals and ideals that guide our lives.  In this way, Jacob begins to learn that perhaps his past actions which were self-driven, taking the birthright at the cost of his brother, may not have been the best action. 
When Jacob wakes up, we finally find out the name of this makom, this place.  This place is called Luz.  There is little written about the meaning of Luz. 

The Talmud that Luz is the city in which the angel of death has no permission to enter: its citizens have the ability to live forever. The Midrash tells us of a man named Aaron, who heard that there was a town with an old Luz – an almond tree – and a dark cave with many passages that must be traversed to find the city of Luz.

Aaron found the town and entered the cave, and finally, after wandering for several days, he encountered an old man who asked him what he was doing in the caves.

Aaron told him: “I am looking for the entrance to Luz.” “The entrance!” exclaimed the man. “I am looking for the exit! The people who live forever have no ambition to learn new ideas or to create new ways to improve themselves or their community.”

When Aaron heard this, he retraced his steps, left the cave, and returned to his home and the work that awaited him there.

We can understand why the man was anxious to leave the city. He needed more than years of life: he needed life in his years. We tend to lose our incentive to grow when there is no limit, when yesterday is tomorrow and next year will be the same.

Jacob understood that he was shown the way out of Luz. He has awakened to the need to complete his journey. He opens his eyes to see God and gains the strength to overcome challenges and to grow. Luz is the place where one stagnates and ceases to grow; Beit El is the place where Jacob receives his wake up call, the divine charge to go forth into the world, to overcome adversities, and make a difference.
We are truly blessed to be living in Boca Raton.  On the surface, Boca can seem like the land of gated communities.  Gates are supposed to give us safety, but that safety comes with a price.  It gives us implicit messages:  not in my backyard, or I have no need of you. 
But coming to this Synagogue is the attempt to live a public life, a life outside of the gates.  We are a synagogue who lives in that tension, of the world as it is, and the world as it should be.  One way we are doing this is by visioning for the future through a tool called house meetings.  In these meetings, we will gather together in small groups to ask questions we don’t usually ask.  Why are we a part of a synagogue?  What do we to want to accomplish?  How are we going to build this synagogue in this tension of living in the world as it is, and the world as it should be?  How are we going to transition from Luz, the old model of a synagogue which continues to do the same things regardless of the results, to Beit El, where we add life to our years by learning new ideas and creating new ways to improve ourselves and this community?  We will learn about each other’s journeys, what brought us here and what keeps us here.  By learning from each other, we will find out where we are going. 
After Jacob’s dream, he realizes that he cannot be the person who he was, an ish tam v’yoshev ohalim, a quiet and private tent dweller.  Jacob becomes transformed, he starts doing one to one’s of sorts, he becomes engaged in public life by meeting people, by challenging the status quo when he moves the rock off of the well so Rachel could feed her flocks, even though it wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. 
Perhaps this is why Jacob is one of my favorite Avot/patriachs.  He is the epitome of transformation and only HE determines how HE will be defined.  He doesn’t wait to be acted on; rather, he acts.  It is a message to all of us, we must transition to be public people, a congregation who acts and doesn’t wait to be acted upon.  This is how we will turn this place, this makom, into a Beit El, a house of God. 


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