I received the following text from my brother this weekend.
Hi Danny. I’m going to call you tomorrow. I had an amazing experience that I have to tell you about. You need to know what happened. It was unbelievable and I can’t wait to tell you.
Sure enough, I received a call from him the very next morning. Kenny and a group of people had gone to see a physic medium. Just for background purposes, Kenny is very scientific when he approaches things. This is a man who holds degrees in Biology and Psychology, and an advanced degree in Micro-Biology. He believes that anything that happens in the world has a scientific explanation to it. He evens looks to improve his golf game using science. His goal for visiting the medium was to prove that it was a gimmick. Kenny sat with his friends prior to their outing and polled everyone to see who believed in physic powers and the spirit world. He created hand signals for people to use so they can share their thoughts during the session. He also brought a pocket knife and ring given to him by our grandfather who passed away over twenty years ago, as he is one of two people Kenny intimately knew who has died.
Kenny sat in the front row and watched intently to find some sort of trick. The only thing he witnessed, however, were the individuals around him moved to tears from what they were hearing. Finally, as Kenny tells it, the medium shouts out “Kenneth, sit up” and then she salutes him. This is what our grandfather used to say and do to him. She went on to tell Kenny that she was with two male figures (our two deceased grandfathers), they wanted him to get off his butt and pursue a job change (which he had already scheduled to do this week). Then a host of other meaningful messages were passed on to him. Kenny the skeptic was no longer doubting the abilities of the medium but wondering when he can meet with her again. On the phone, I could tell he was shaken and moved by the events that occurred. His life, as he explains it, had been forever changed.
This week’s parsha, Vayeitzei, opens with a similar life changing experience. Jacob has departed from Beersheba and decides to rest. He uses a stone as a pillow and goes to sleep. He dreams of a ladder that is grounded on earth and stretches up to heaven. Angels are moving up and down the ladder. God speaks to Jacob telling him that his descendants will be many, that they will spread out in many directions, that all peoples will be blessed by them, and that ultimately God will bring him back to his homeland. In the morning he wakes and constructs an altar on the spot and names it Beit El (Bethel), meaning House of God.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky comments that this encounter Jacob had with God was an open-ended journey.
The Torah is our story and not just the story of our ancestors, it reflects the fact that we too are on a journey. We move from one place to another. Sometimes they are the simple journeys of going from one location to a different one. And other times, they are the metaphysical journeys of our moving from one stage to another in our lives. Often people take these journeys and do not reflect on them, nor think about the forces at play that motivate our movement. In the case of this week’s Torah portion, not only did Jacob acknowledge that there were influences in his life that directed his travels, but he also took note of the presence of God even in the simple steps along the way. And to make sure that others took such note, he named the place of his recognition: Bet El–the house of God.
Whether or not I agree that Kenny communicated with our grandfathers through this medium is irrelevant. What does matter is that Kenny, like Jacob and many of us, was influenced and has decided to change the direction of his journey. I would have never thought that I would be a Jewish communal professional, however influences on my life helped guide me down this path. Congregants come to our community because they were guided by their experiences. Like Jacob, we need to acknowledge that we are influenced, as well as be recognized for making a change in course. I believe that Rabbi Olitzky says it well when he comments, “the lesson of inclusion from this Torah portion is that while we can know that all of us are on a journey, we cannot know where the journey will ultimately lead. That is why we have to open our gates to the community so then when one’s journey leads people here; we are ready to receive them with open arms.”