I play a game on my phone that involves moving different shaped pieces into a box, fitting them together like a puzzle. The goal is to make squares and straight lines, which disappear and reward you with points. You get three pieces at a time and must use them all before the subsequent set is revealed.
It’s impossible to plan ahead, because you don’t know what’s coming next. You have to do the best you can with the current set of shapes.
The rules of the game are much like real life. You have no idea what’s coming next. Everything you do in the present has consequences, even if they’re not immediately apparent. Mistakes can’t be undone; you have to live with your errors and try to compensate later.
I find myself returning to the game in the hope that I will do better next time. As a metaphor for how we live our lives, the fact that I keep coming back can be seen as an asset. I won’t give up. I might walk away from the game for a while, but eventually I come back and try again.
The game is an individual enterprise, in many ways much like life itself. This week’s Torah portion tells of a solitary and liminal moment in Jacob’s life. He was in the middle of a journey from one danger to another, running away from his brother whose birthright and blessing he stole by trickery, and on the road to his uncle Laban, who will trick and betray him. It was his first journey away from home, and he was alone.
Lying in the wilderness at night with a stone for a pillow he dreamed, and saw a ladder with angels going up and down between earth and heaven, a liminal state much like his own. In that moment of aloneness, God suddenly appeared and spoke reassuringly to him.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote of this, “Jacob is the man who has his deepest spiritual experiences alone, at night, in the face of danger and far from home. He is the man who meets God when he least expects to, when his mind is on other things, when he is in a state of fear and possibly on the brink of disaster… Jacob gave [us] the knowledge that precisely when you feel most alone, God is still with you, giving you the courage to hope and the strength to dream.”
How we manage these moments is what helps define us. We can have life changing experiences in complete isolation, and yet their influence will have a ripple effect that reaches far into our future and our relationships with those around us.
Jacob intuitively understood his dream, and the next morning he said, “God was in this place and I did not know it,” and called it Beit El, God’s House. And he took this learning with him as he faced the successes and failures that would befall him in the years to come.
I have wondered: What if he stopped at a different spot to rest and used a different rock for a pillow? Would he have had the same dream?
I believe the answer is yes. God can be wherever we are, and we can reach out to God from any place, at any time.
The fact that we choose specific places to pray in community is simply because we need somewhere to congregate. But wherever that is, that’s where God will be too.
As Jacob learned, God can be found in the most unexpected places, at the most unexpected times.
Most of us have friends and family with whom we travel through this life. And yet there will inevitably be moments when we find ourselves alone, trying to do our best, failing and hopefully getting back up and trying again. In those moments, may you be blessed to remember that Someone has your back.