D'var Torah Vayetzei - “When a Cigar is a Holy Community”
Nov. 20, 2015 - Congregation Kol Ami

“Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.” This statement usually attributed to Sigmund Freud (although, it’s likely not his statement - http://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/08/12/just-a-cigar/) teaches us that something benign may actually be benign. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, we have the opposite lesson - sometimes a place in the middle of nowhere is much more than just a place in the middle of nowhere. 

Fleeing his brother Esau, Jacob leaves Beer-sheva and sets out on a journey. One night, at an unidentified point in the journey, he encounters an unidentified place and sets up a simple camp using a rock as a pillow. And Jacob dreams. The story of his dream is best illustrated in Everett Fox’s translation: “Here, a ladder was set up on the earth, its top reaching the heavens, and here: messengers of God were going up and down on it. And here: Adonai was standing over against him. God said: ‘I am Adonai, the God of Avraham your father and the God of Yitzchak. The land on which you lie I give to you and to your seed. Your seed will be like the dust of the earth; you will burst forth, to the Sea, to the east, to the north, to the Negev. All the clans of the soil will find blessing through you and through your seed! Here, I am with you, I will watch over you wherever you go and will bring you back to this soil; indeed, I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.’

“Ya’akov awoke from his sleep and said: ‘Why, Adonai is in this place, and I, I did not know it!’ He was awestruck and said: ‘How awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than a house of God!’” (Gen. 28:12-17, Fox) Jacob then takes the stones that he had used that night, creates a monument to God in that unidentified, unknown place that had been insignificant, and names that place, “Beit El, House of God.” (Gen. 28:19)

Those stones were no longer just stones. 

I want to draw our attention to two key Hebrew words in this story: “Hinei” and “Makom.” Literally, “hinei” means “here,” but more fittingly it is a word meant to draw our attention to something important. For example, when we sing “Hinei mah tov umanaim shevet achim gam yachad,” we often see a translation of “How good and how pleasant it is that brothers and sisters dwell together.” (Psalm 133:1, trans. Mishkan T’filah) That translation is not wrong, but there is one word that does not get translated: “hinei.” Beginning this line from Psalms with “hinei” is meant to focus us to the importance of what comes next. “Hinei” can be thought to mean, “Lo and behold,” or as a friend of Student Rabbi Shefrin taught us, “hinei” can mean, “Dude!”

The text of our story wants us to pay attention, not necessarily to the place itself, but to its significance. Our story of Jacob’s dream begins with three instances of “hinei,” and one more when God says, “v’hinei anochi imach - and hey, I am with you.” When Jacob lay down to sleep for the night, he had no idea this sacred encounter would happen. But the text is begging us to understand that this is a sacred moment that is happening in an anywhere kind of place.

Indeed, the other key-word in this story is “Makom,” which means “place.” It is used six times and — like “hinei” — is meant to make us pay attention that something special, something Divine is going to happen. “In post biblical Hebrew, ‘makom’ became a term for God, so that the setting for the ensuing dream seemed predestined.” (Plaut commentary) Robert Alter notes, “This is the tale of transformation of an anonymous place through vision into a ‘House of God.’” 

The Talmud (Chullin 91b) gives us a story that this anonymous place is actually Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, the site of the binding of Isaac on the altar, and later, the Holy Temple. Although most commentators do not share this view, the Talmud is making the point that this place has spiritual significance for Jacob and, therefore, should have significance for us.

Maimonides, however, feels that places and objects are not holy, per se. Sometimes, a site is just a site. The holiness and enhanced spirituality happens when people use those sacred moments and sacred sites to improve themselves and their communities. 

But Jacob does not see this site as a mountain, as Abraham did (Gen. 22). Nor does Jacob see this site as a field, as Isaac did (Gen. 27:3). Jacob sees this site as a house — “Beit El - a House of God.” Rabbi Laurence Groffman teaches that this is meant to “remind us that in addition to residing in the universality of the mountain and the field, we must keep our own house in order. We must take great care to nurture our own distinctive identities and tend to the needs of our people.” 

We are more than a congregation. We are more than a collection of individuals who come together in a certain place in the middle of LaBrea on our journeys. We are a holy community - a kehilah kenosha. 

We recognize that the messengers of God, these angels, started on the ground and then went up. We, too, can take our message of love and raise it up; carrying with us the messengers of God who fight for the rights of equality for all, so that not one more person is senselessly killed because of who they love or what gender they are. We, too, can take our message of peace and raise it up; carrying with us the messengers of God who fight for our security, so that not one more person is senselessly killed because they went to a concert in Paris or a hotel in Bali or vacationed in Egypt. We, too, can take our message of community and raise it up; carrying with us Jacob’s revelation that God is found in each other, in this place, when we open ourselves to that holiness. 

We are Congregation Kol Ami, the voice of My people. 

That voice. 

Can you hear it? 

Shabbat shalom.