Trick of the Light

“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” These words were spoken by the artist Vincent van Gogh. If you know his most famous work, Starry Night, this sentiment makes sense. In this painting, he captures the enchantment, the wonder, and the mystery that he senses in the night sky.

In Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, The Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom describes his fascination with the night: “Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation. Darkness wakes and stirs imagination. Silently, the senses abandon their defenses, helpless to resist the notes I write.”

There’s something captivating and compelling about the nighttime, the hours when our rational and reasonable selves are quieted for the day, and our imaginations are active and alert.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, the patriarch Jacob has a magical experience in the middle of the night. When the parasha opens, we find Jacob on the run, trying to escape the wrath of his brother, Esau, whom he has just betrayed. On this first night, Jacob finds a “certain place” (later identified by the Rabbis as Jerusalem), puts a stone under his head to serve as a pillow, and nods off. While he sleeps, he dreams of a ladder whose bottom rungs are firmly planted on the ground, but whose top reaches up to the sky. Ascending and descending the ladder are angels of God.

Amidst this otherworldly vision, God appears to him and says: “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac….Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:13-15).

Jacob awakes suddenly, startled and excited, and proclaims: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven!” (Genesis 28:17). He is overwhelmed and thrilled by his close encounter with the divine. But the music of the night can’t last forever. The magic of Jacob’s nighttime revelation quickly dissolves into the skepticism that daylight reliably brings. In the morning, Jacob becomes suspicious of his mystical experience from the previous night. Instead of trusting that God’s revelation will come true, he begins to bargain with God: “If God remains with me, if God protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—then Adonai shall be my God” (Genesis 28:20-21).

It’s hard to blame Jacob for his incredulity. What if he had only imagined God’s appearance, and God’s promises? After all, we know that dreams don’t always come true, no matter how real and believable they may seem in the protective cocoon of the night.

Although this year’s celebration likely felt more tempered than usual, yesterday’s Thanksgiving holiday was an opportunity to focus on the gifts and blessings of our lives. Perhaps you Zoomed with your relatives, or ate a leisurely meal, or enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that almost all Americans paused for a day to reflect on and share our gratitude. The sheer scale of Thanksgiving, with so many people from different backgrounds, faiths, and experiences partaking in the same common rituals, can sometimes feel like a dream.

But today is the day after Thanksgiving, a day when we transition back to reality. The mindset of abundance—both for the tangible and intangible bounty in our lives—that we embrace on Thanksgiving can easily give way to feelings of lack and insufficiency. It doesn’t help that today is the biggest shopping day of the year, on which many of us understandably feel the need to acquire, purchase, and amass more stuff before we can feel at peace. The transition from satisfaction to scarcity is instantaneous, as though we have suddenly woken up from a dream that we dare not trust.

What if Jacob had held on to the magic of his nighttime vision, where he felt sure of the completeness and totality of God’s protective presence? What if, as the sun rose, he could have quelled his desire to allow doubt, disbelief, and apprehension to overtake him, even if only for a few moments? How much more rich that day might have been.

What if we, too, could trust our gratitude instead of questioning it? What if we could hold on to the feeling of shlemut, of wholeness and abundance, that Thanksgiving offers us, even for a few extra moments? How different might our lives be if we lingered in the dreamland of gratitude, instead of waking up immediately to the reality of consumerism and constant acquisition?

This Shabbat, may we all have the opportunity to sleep a little longer, so we may live in and trust the beauty of our dreams.

One thought on “Trick of the Light

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