What does it feel like to experience a moment of truth? It does not have to be a bad or tragic thing, but, any juncture or crossroads when we are compelled to follow a new course in our lives. I can imagine several examples such as beginning a new venture, deciding to retire and relocate or taking a new job or to get married or even to mourn a loved one’s passing? How about a medical diagnosis and the process of deciding the course of medical treatment? Making a choice between priorities at work with family or a personal decision about one’s identity such as for example revealing one’s sexual orientation?
In this week’s parasha, Vayetze, Jacob, the precocious kid, flees the wrath of a betrayed and revenge seeking brother Esau. On his journey back to his native Haran for refuge with his uncle Laban, Jacob encounters in a dream a moment of truth. How did the sages understand this transcendent occasion in his life? What does the Torah teach us about reacting to the moments of truth that move us to change course in our life as well?
In Genesis chapter 28 it is written, “Jacob left Beer-Sheba and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night for the son had set. Taking one of the stones of that place he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream, a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing beside him and said, “I am the Eternal One, the God of your father Abraham, and the god of Isaac, the ground on which you are lying, I will give to you and your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth, you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. And the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember I am with you and I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to the land I will not leave you and I have done what I have promised you” (28:10-15).
Clearly this dream was an unexpected moment of truth for Jacob. His reaction to the dream reflected his willingness to embrace change and a new course in his life. Jacob says, “Surely the Lord is present in this place and I did not know it.,” How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God and the gateway to heaven,” (28:16-17).
The sages of our tradition had many interpretations but one stands out above the others. The Midrash says regarding Jacob’s dream, “When you see a fateful moment, do not stand against it but give way to it” (Tanhuma Midrash). Was he facing the reality that even though he was in the midst of running away from his immediate family drama and deception with Esau that one day he would accept his destiny to return to the Promised Land and be Patriarch? In other words could he run away in the short term but not run away in the long term from his newly defined purpose in life?
“When you see a fateful moment, do not stand against it but give way to it.” I feel the intention here is that life often times brings us unanticipated moments of great decision and the Midrash is saying that we are supposed to embrace change rather than resist it. For Jacob the dream of a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending along with God’s covenantal promise helped him expand his awareness of a new life direction. He knew not what would come next in his life but maybe now he understood that his purpose was to fulfill a divine promise that he Jacob would one day be the Patriarch of this tribe. The future is not always clear to us initially in so far as what change means in the short term but somehow if we open our eyes we eventually grasp a long range perspective in the direction of our lives.
“When you see a fateful moment do not stand against it but give way to it.” I heard something like this from a man who had lost his beloved to a disease and refused to ever consider another life partner again until that special person entered into his life. He then fought the moment of feeling that he could love again but eventually embraced those feelings and ultimately married her.
A woman told me a story about a time when she was notified that she was pregnant and experienced a conflict inside her regarding to have the child or choose an abortion. She gave way to the powerful emotions of being a mother and chose to carry the unexpected child to full term.
I recall a college student’s confession of his decision to change his major and pursue a new course of study where his real passions were and risked his parent’s disapproval. Change is the most threatening thing and, parenthetically, the most exhilarating experience. I am not sure Jacob made peace with this change of discovering his destiny but he followed it like an adventurer on a long journey not being sure of the outcome but committed to the journey.
“When a fateful moment comes do not stand against it but give way to it.” These historic moments occur sparingly in a lifetime. Sometimes we stop for a moment and ask, “Am I in charge of my life or am I being guided on a much larger scale drama than I could ever imagine?
That is one of the major questions that religion asks of us which is to ascertain our purpose in life. For Jacob he received his marching orders from God that his role was to father a family and represent the Jewish people one day. That was his fateful moment. Can we recall an encounter or a fateful moment that would shape a new direction for our lives? Thanksgiving is an excellent time to reflect on the journey each of us has travelled to be here. Maybe we did not welcome that change at first and quite possibly it scared us or challenged us to the core of our being but at the end of the day we accepted this new direction anyway. That was the challenge that Jacob finally embraced and it is one which happens to us when we least expect it. As Isaiah said at the conclusion of the Midrash; “Go my people, enter your chambers and shut your doors behind me. Hide just for a moment until my anger passes” (Isaiah 6:20). The message is hiding to avoid the challenges of a change of course is understandable. At the end of the day change is inevitable and a call to action for a new opportunity at life can be a gift in the long run. The Sages say don’t resist it but embrace change.