Ever since September 11th, most people I know have had a hard time sleeping at night. I keep hearing stories over and over again from people of all ages about how hard it is to fall asleep in the first place and then about waking up at all hours of the night, about nightmares that keep recurring and dreams they can’t explain that disturb their sense of security and well-being.
One father with two small children told me how he keeps dreaming that his little girls are in danger and calling for him but he can’t see them and can only hear their cries and feel the fear and frustration of being impotent to rescue them from peril.
A single mother with an adolescent son dreams her son has been kidnapped by a motorcycle gang of skinheads and ends up sold into slavery in another country on the other side of the world and all she has left is his cry for help on her voice mail.
A teenage girl tells me that she keeps waking up in the middle of the night with her heart racing with fear and sudden panic but having no idea where it is coming from. She then stays up all night because she is afraid to go back go sleep.
A man in his twenties tells me he just can’t seem to concentrate on his graduate schoolwork anymore. His mind keeps drifting, daydreaming about bombs going off in the mall and World War Three starting. Every time he sees a plane flying overhead he expects it to explode in the sky.
And I have had trouble sleeping since September 11th as well. I wake up during the night; I have my own dream/nightmares of people dying and needing my help while I either stand frozen and unable to move out of fear or am unable to reach them, or I am overwhelmed by so many cries for help and people in need at the same moment that I know I can’t possibly make any difference at all.
So I think about Jacob in this week’s Torah portion – running off into the night away from his brother Esau in fear and panic, knowing that Esau wants to kill him for stealing his blessings and taking his rightful inheritance.
When darkness comes Jacob lies down on the hard ground by the side of the road with only a rock for a pillow. He too is suffering from fear of violence, of retribution, of anger, yet unlike most of us, when he dreams it is a dream of solace, consolation and hope.
Jacob dreams of a ladder that stretches from the earth to the heavens with “angels going up and coming down.” Since our normal expectation would be that angels start in heaven and come down first and then go back up, this specific reversal of order is to teach us that as “Angels” in Hebrew are malakhim “divine messengers,” God’s messages start right here on Earth among all of us and not in some far off heaven.
It is the messages that we bring to one another about what matters most in life, including how to cope with our fears and how to be there for each other during our individual and collective traumas that are the divine messages we truly need to hear. In Jacob’s dream first God makes a promise that through him all the families of the earth will be blessed and only then does Jacob hear the promise that God will protect him wherever he goes.
The same must be true for all of us. If we live our lives in such a way as to fulfill God’s promise to Jacob (which is the same promise made to Abraham) that all the families of the world will become blessed because of what we say, what we do and who we are, we will surely have discovered the key to banishing our fears.
For to be a blessing in the lives of others demands that we shift our focus from ourselves to others as well. As we help those who suffer around us, we will bring healing to ourselves as well. And the more I think about it the more I am certain that it simply can’t happen any other way.