Back when I used to fly a lot—not just pre-COVID days, but in my professional life as co-director of a national organization, I felt like I was constantly getting on and off planes. And every time, all around me, I’d see folks settling in, opening a book, or nodding off before takeoff. But not me. I was sweating it every time. I’d have my superman “socks with capes” on to help the plane stay up. I’d text my parents—“Boarded. Love you.” And then, as my flight took off, I’d grip my open prayerbook and say Tefilat HaDerech, the Traveler’s prayer. I do not like flying.
But, my least favorite moment was when the pilot would come on and tell us that we are going to be experiencing very bumpy air for the duration of the flight, what we used to call turbulence. Now, I know that turbulence itself is not dangerous, but I also know that it makes me nervous, so I can immediately see a long difficult flight ahead of me. I know it’s coming and there isn’t anything I can do to stop it. That’s hard. And then, I also know, on the other end, I’ll be so happy to land and be where I want to be.
Why am I telling you all this right now?
I kind of feel like we are exactly in that moment with COVID right now. We have a destination in sight, but the pilot just came on to tell us that the flight ahead is going to be really bumpy.
More than turbulent. The next few months, we’ve been told, are going to be very hard. For some, catastrophically so. For others, we will watch COVID numbers and deaths surge, requiring us to possibly lock down again and face all the challenges and fear that come with that. And at the same time, we can see—with all this potentially great news about effective vaccines—we can see a time within a year or so when we might emerge into some normalcy. We are hesitant to let ourselves get too hopeful, I know, but we can nearly see a horizon at the end of this terrible flight we are on. It will get so much better, but not before it gets so much worse.
So what do we do with that?
The very end of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayeitzei, finds our ancestor, Jacob, taking his family on a trip home, toward the land of his parents. What lies ahead of him, though, is an incredibly tough journey first. Before he arrives at his parents’ home, he will encounter many scary unknowns and even scarier knowns. He will confront his brother, Esau, who he so deeply wronged, not knowing what Esau will do to him. He will confront so many of his own demons, too.
He’s got a great horizon—being back with his parents and in the land of his birth, in a newly extended covenant with God, and significant wealth. But the journey to get there is gonna be really rough.
The last line of this parsha has Jacob gazing out into the challenges ahead of him, and the text says this:
וְיַעֲקֹב הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים׃
Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him.
וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָם מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים זֶה וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם־הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא מַחֲנָיִם׃
When he saw them—these angels—Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Machanaim. (which means camps).
Now, I told you that one of the things I do to help feel safer as my flight takes off, is that I say Tefilat Haderech, the Traveler’s prayer. In the siddur I use for this, at the end of that prayer are added these very words.
I imagine the liturgists responsible for this saw Jacob on his journey in the same moment we find ourselves in now context—gazing into a really hard chapter with his mind set on the prize of coming home, but knowing that it won’t be easy to get there. So they plucked this verse out and put it in the mouths of frightened travelers.
We are Jacob as we stand here on November 27th, our eye on the prize on the other side, but frightened of what’s ahead. So what can we learn from this text, provided to us in a mirror of our own experience? A few good things, I think:
First—it says vayif’g’u Yaakov—this verb—paga’—means to meet or encounter, or even to join with. On our journey through the dark times, we, too, will need multiple kinds of encounter. We will surely need one another in myriad ways. But also, we can plan for another kind of encounter. It is known science that concerning ourselves with another’s needs can lift a person’s heart. Well, along with this pandemic has come a record number of job losses and hungry people. How can we yif’g’u, encounter, or join ourselves, to the other? We can join our journey to others whose journey is really turbulent right now.
We can give tzedakah, an act of righteous giving, to a local food pantry or an organization that is addressing the massive food insecurity at this time. Giving of ourselves at a dark time brings a glimmer of light.
Second—Who does Jacob Yif’g’u? Encounter? Malachim. Angels. There are angels all around us. Our essential workers all over the country, health care workers who know that the next few months are going to be brutal. We can notice the angels, express our gratitude, acknowledge, recognize and thank them. If you are them—thank you. For caring for our sick country. We can thank them in words or wine or cookies. We can thank them by making some phone calls to help get the HEROES Act passed right away, to afford them hazard pay and appropriate protections. We can offer our gratitude every time we cross their paths to thank them for their service. Gratitude for one another helps us through this bumpy air.
Third—Jacob names the place he is in Machanaim. A camp of God. He decides, even through his trepidation, that the ground he is standing on is holy and that God’s presence is there. And so he causes himself to act in ways that are holy. What is that for you? Is that deciding you will clap again at 7pm every night? You’ll sing? You’ll cook good food? You’ll order from your favorite place to help them make it through? You’ll stop doom scrolling—and give your mind and heart some peace? You’ll make virtual dates with your friends or text each other once a day? You’ll pray? Read? Learn? Give yourself a break when school closes again and you are beyond stressed with kids at home while you try to work? What will it mean for you to declare your physical space a holy space? When the trip is most rocky, we can both ground and elevate our camp.
We have a journey to prepare for. The pilot just came on the loudspeaker to tell us it’s going to be a really rough flight. We’ll have loss in the weeks ahead. We may have mental health challenges in the dark quarantines of winter. We have a destination in our sights, but the time between here and there won’t be easy.
May we create holy space of peacefulness in our homes. May we notice and express gratitude for the angels all around us. And may we proactively choose to encounter those on our path with a heart of generosity. What is YOUR plan? Let’s make it now. As we white-knuckle this flight, may we and our loved ones and all who are on this flight be safe and healthy when we arrive at our longed-for destination. Amen.