In 1902 Theodor Herzl wrote a utopian vision for what the Jewish state could be in the future. It was titled Altneuland, or Old New Land. Included in this novel is the phrase, “if you will it, it is no dream” (this phrase became a popular Zionist slogan and there is even a song to the Hebrew translation of the words--im tirzu ein zo aggada/אם תרצו אין זו אגדה). The way that this phrase is generally thought of, is that if you want something bad enough, it can come true. If you want to get to Israel, you will get there.
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayetzei, Jacob leaves Be’er Sheva and heads for Haran (likely somewhere in present-day Turkey). While he is on the way, the Torah tells us that “And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed...וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי-בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו; וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא. וַיַּחֲלֹם” Our Rabbinic tradition teaches us that the Patriarchs established for us the three prayer services of the day. Abraham established the morning prayer/shaharit/שחרית, Isaac established the afternoon prayer/minha/מנחה, and Jacob established the evening prayer/ma’ariv/מעריב. Our verse above is the prooftext that the Rabbis use to prove that Jacob established ma’ariv. They say that he “lighted upon/וַיִּפְגַּע” means that he engaged in prayer.
Rashi, the medieval French commentator, is intrigued by this idea. He points out that the Torah does not explicitly tell us that Jacob prayed. The idea that he “lighted upon” or perhaps “encountered” the place, suggests that the Land jumped to him! To Rashi, “the Place” can only mean one place, Mt. Moriah (which later becomes known as the Temple mount in Jerusalem).
The Sfas Emes asks a good question regarding Rashi’s interpretation. What does establishing ma’ariv and the Land jumping to Jacob have to do with each other? He teaches that it must be that if a person wills it, one can stir up the holiness of God in any place. That is what Rashi means when he says that Mt. Moriah uprooted and and came to Jacob. It shows that Jacob wanted so badly to be heading towards holiness, towards the legacy of his father and grandfather instead of heading to Haran. And this is the essence of ma’ariv. The Sfas Emes explains that when it is dark, the only way to reveal divine light is if a person can fully desire holiness. That passion brings light into the dark of night, where it naturally would not have been.
One can never be too far from this light, as it says in Isaiah (57:19) “Peace, peace, to him that is far off and to him that is near/שָׁלוֹם שָׁלוֹם לָרָחוֹק וְלַקָּרוֹב.” Sometimes we feel that we are far from holiness. Sometimes we feel that we are far from being our best selves. Even when we feel that far, we need to know that God is with us--we can even use that distance and channel it towards the desire for reunion. A reunion with holiness; a reunion with the parts of the self that bring about a better reality for us and those around us. If we want it bad enough, we can move mountains. The challenge is to never give up. As we head into the winter, the darkest part of the year, moving farther and farther away from the High Holidays, it might be easy to give in to the cold and the fatigue that comes with it. Let us find reminders to help us snap out of it and stay focused on bringing about a world filled with light. If we want it bad enough, there is no difference between dreams and reality.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.