Between Luz And Beit El: The Power of Transformational Moments

by David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, Boca Raton, FL

This d'var Torah was originally given at the RA/JOIN for Justice Community Organizing Training Conference, October 29, 2013.

During our first session, we asked you to share your aha moment; a moment that changed the course of your life forever.

Here's mine:

I was a fourth year rabbinical student at JTS and I was invited to something called a “house meeting.” I had no idea what this meeting would be as it wasn't held in a house, and I had no idea what I was supposed to say at this meeting, but I went anyway because one of my classmates and friends invited me. 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 their own story. Some were about their struggles with getting healthcare for their families, others spoke about how their lives as students were impacted by a lack of affordable child care, and then it was my turn. My wife and I didn't have children at the time, so some of these were foreign issues to me, but I had to think, what kept me up at night?

Years before that moment, the seminary had some financial difficulties and had to make money fast. The Seminary chose to sell a property that they owned on 103rd street 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. The land was sold, the seminary kept their budget in tact, but my wife and I, and many of our friends, were living in a reality of very few affordable housing options. Our current building was a disaster -- a drug dealer living on the first floor, limited to no heat in the winter, a broken elevator that seemed never to get fixed, and more.

As I told this story, I realized what I was most upset with: the fact that my fellow students did not say a word -- they just accepted our reality -- it's just the way the world works right? It's just a couple of years, and then we'll be out of here, so why should we do anything?

So what kept me up at night? 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?” House meetings? Now, one to ones? What world was I living in?

This woman sensed a hunger inside of me and wanted to meet with me, to have a one to one meeting, in order to create a public relationship. Her name is Jeannie Appleman, and she became one of my greatest mentors and teachers.

Looking back, I now realize that it was that moment when a spark was ignited in 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 from my slumber and became aware, and this theme of dreaming and waking up is something we will be reading about regarding our namesake, our father Jacob, or Israel.

This Shabbat, we will be introduced to Jacob, and at the end of the parashah, Jacob's life is going to be flipped on its head. After he flees from his home, Jacob experiences what I believe will be one of, if not the, most defining moments in his life.

Parashat Va-yeitzei 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 Lekh L'kha moment to go a promised land, Jacob is forced to go to leave 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 with 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.

But this world as should be is just as dangerous as the world as it is be because it could lead to the individual withdrawing from public life. Why live in an imperfect world, with imperfect beings, when you can be with God and God's angels? Why struggle in this flawed world with others?

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 and flawed earth, and the world as it should be, the overly idealistic and perfect heaven, 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 his life. 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 or fooling his father into receiving the blessing, 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 imagines 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 desperately wanted to find this city. He learned that one must traverse a dark cave with many passages to find the city of Luz. Aaron enters the cave, and after wandering for several days, he encounters 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!" Aaron asks the man, "Is it true that the people of Luz live forever?" The man answers, "Yes, unfortunately, this is true."

Aaron is puzzled -- why on earth would you want to leave this place?!

Because, the man continues, 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.

Our family and our community are truly blessed to be living in Boca Raton. On the surface, Boca can seem like a perfect place -- manicured lawns, clean streets, country clubs, and a gate around almost every community with your own guards.

Gates are supposed to give us safety, but that safety comes with a price. These gates can change us -- we are more likely to say, not in my backyard, or I don't need you, leave me alone.

I view our kehillah as an attempt to live a public life, a life outside of the gates. We are a community who lives in that tension, of the world as it is, and the world as it should be.

How did we get to this point? By visioning for the future through a tool called house meetings. In these meetings, we gathered together in small groups to ask questions we didn’t usually ask.

Why are we a part of a kehillah?

What do we to want to accomplish?

How are we going to build this community 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 learned about each other’s journeys, what brought us here and what keeps us here. By learning from each other, we found out where we were going.

After Jacob’s dream, he realizes that he cannot just be the person who he was, an ish tam v’yosheiv 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 Patriarchs.

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 our congregants to become "public people" -- our communities to become congregations who act and don't wait to be acted upon.

This is how we will turn this place, this makom, and your place, your makom, from Luz to Beit El, a house of God.

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