Finding the Blessing in the Ending
Sermon delivered on 25th November 2022, the last Shabbat at the Jackson's Row building after 70 years of housing the community.
So, how are we doing?!
It’s an emotional morning. A morning that we have been waiting for, for around 20 years. Suspended in grief, a long goodbye. Each Shabbat we enter this space and we are reminded that we will be saying farewell at some point. The peeling paint, the damp, slowly edging its way into the sanctuary, in the top right of the gallery. Two days ago, part of the back of the bimah fell down – the building gently letting us know it is ready to say it’s goodbye to us.
Despite us knowing we need to go. Despite knowing that the work of Danny Savage, Mark Levy, Brian Livingstone (z”l), our exec and councils over years, have enabled us to walk away into a bright future, able to invest in resources and buildings for our future. Despite all of this – it is hard. Moving is always hard.
And when things are hard, as Jews, we turn to our Torah, our stories. And today I want to turn to Jacob. We’ve heard today of Jacob’s difficult birth and upbringing. Brought up by a troubled father, Isaac, who himself had suffered trauma early in life as he lay under the hand of his father Abraham, knife aloft, saved by a voice from above at the last minute.
Jacob who was born into conflict with his brother Esau. Jacob, a gentle, contemplative boy – insecure and unsure. His mother’s favourite – primed by her to steal the first-born blessing from his brother, he tricks his elderly, blind father.
Jacob, unsurprisingly, given his background, falls under the authority of another difficult man, his uncle Laban, and again is caught in conflict – this time with Laban and his two wives, Rachel and Leah. He escapes, eventually, and we see his transformation from this young, unsure, scared young man to a mature, spiritual, grounded person.
I want us to explore the exact moment this transformation happened. The text tells us it begins with a goodbye. He makes a covenant of peace with his Uncle Laban, finding resolution after the conflict and years of hardship. ‘Early in the morning’, chapter 32 of Genesis reads, Laban says goodbye and heads home. A goodbye which enables, in the next verse, Jacob to go on his own way. A reality we know to be true, and we touched upon it on Rosh Hashanah – beginnings involve endings. To begin anew we must first say goodbye no matter how familiar and easy staying is – no matter how hard it is – we must say goodbye for there is an end to everything.
Upon saying goodbye and starting on his own path, for the first time in his life, Jacob meets messengers of God, and he recognises them as such, and ritually names the place as being sacred. And here’s the second lesson for us, Jacob, as we will see, wanders throughout the land and habitually recognises and names places as being sacred. There is no one place which is innately sacred – instead we find and create holiness and name it as such – and then we move on. The holiness does not rest in this building but in the encounter between us all – a divine encounter. We are wanderers and as one of our members, Lucy, said recently – Judaism is a people, not a place. A people who seek and find holiness wherever they go.
The story continues for Jacob then realises, just like all of our heroes (I’m thinking particularly of Luke Skywalker as he comes face to face with Darth Vader – but I’m sure you have your own examples!) just like any hero – before he steps fully into himself, he must come face to face with his shadow – with the pain – his brother Esau. He prepares himself and his family by saying a prayer and sending a gift ahead. And then the reckoning begins – the text says:
וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃
‘Jacob was left alone. And a figure [literally: a man] wrestled with him until the break of dawn’.
You may know the story, they wrestle, and Jacob is resilient so the figure injures Jacob’s hip to presumably gain an advantage. But Jacob will not give up or into the pain. And then, the verse of all verses, ‘The figure said…’
שַׁלְּחֵ֔נִי כִּ֥י עָלָ֖ה הַשָּׁ֑חַר ׃
‘let me go, for dawn is breaking’.
וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אֲשַֽׁלֵּחֲךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־בֵּרַכְתָּֽנִי
But Jacob answered, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me’. Here we realise that Jacob is the one holding on. He asks for the name of the being, who will not tell him.
We think the man must be an angel, a messenger of God, or a representation of Esau perhaps, or Esau himself, or is Jacob wrestling with himself? Either way Jacob names the place, Peniel, because, he says:
רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי׃
‘I have seen a God face to face, panim el panim, yet my life has been preserved.’ Jacob recognises the sacred in this encounter.
What can this mean for us? We cannot escape the sadness. In saying goodbye to this building – whilst we know it is the people who matter, not the place, this building helps tangibly connect us to those who have gone before us and to our Judaism as it holds memories for us. We know their memories, and many more, travel with us but there is something about saying goodbye to the place where we knew them – our caretaker Brian – and when we knew and found parts of ourselves.
But we must, like Jacob, recognise and hold this sadness – not turn away from it and focus our anger on others, not deny it and turn to resentment. As the famous children’s story goes, we can’t go under it, we can’t go over it – we must go through it. Through pain and loss – of all that this home symbolises – home, belonging, perhaps, certainty, power, stability – we must go through the pain and turn into the blessing hiding within the uncertainty.
And Jacob teaches us that we go through the pain – not in order to create higher fences and disconnection and curses but instead we go through the pain towards inclusion and blessings.
We cannot leave this place without being blessed. We say goodbye, knowing we are wanderers and that we will find other sacred homes together, we go through the pain and demand to be blessed and find blessing.
In this way we do not move on from this time in our communal or individual histories but move forward – having been transformed and blessed.
Blessed through the care, love, joy, compassion and humour we are capable of. Blessed through the encounters, relationships and friendships forged here – panim el panim – face to face.
This part of Jacob’s story ends with the sun rising up upon him as he limps pass Peniel. He moves forward, carrying the limp, having been blessed. He is able then to create new stories as he makes amends with his brother and finds peace. He fully embraces and models his Hebrew name, Israel, gifted to him at an earlier moment of transformation – one who struggles with God.
For these moments of pain and sadness, vulnerability and uncertainty – are gifts to us if we can find the blessing to take with us. If we can carry the memories and feelings of home with us to find holiness elsewhere, to create new stories and new Jewish homes for others. And this work is on us – on each of us to find the blessing and the connection to leave with and towards.
May we then, each, leave here with a blessing. Through the tears may we find laughter. Through the sadness, hope. Through the pain and exclusion, inclusion and welcome. For the sun is rising and we can, if we choose, walk together to our next place of sanctuary, with the warmth of the sun on us, limping forward, maybe, but into the vast horizon – the promise of a new future – one where we get to craft a place that we can call home in this time – a home linking us backwards, and forwards. A place to move towards.
Ken Yehi Ratzon – may this be God’s will, and let us say amen.