As I sink more deeply into middle age I sometimes have the wildly narcissistic idea that I’m dragging the rest of my Jewish/American world with me. Middle age is not a time of great dreams or ambitions; the goals are maintenance, avoiding the worst, not dying. Apprehension and fear replace optimistic aspirations, and this seems to be the mood in American Judaism. Since the Pew reports two years ago – and really before that – the dominant narrative has been crisis and decline. The questions we ask are defensive, uninspiring. How do we stop the bleeding – in numbers, in commitment? What went wrong? Whose fault is it? With questions like these, it’s not surprising that the answers, particularly from some American Jewish leaders, have been uninteresting and uninspiring. There’s a similar mood in our conversations about Israel. We don’t discuss our aspirations for a greater Zionism dream. We don’t wonder how we might make Israel a better place. We defend, we combat BDS, we advocate. We desperately support a status quo that we all know deep down is unsustainable. We don’t even bother to suggest solutions.
I have a friend who told me that when it comes Israel, we’ve forgotten how to dream. The 1880’s and 1890’s were certainly a time of great trauma for the Jewish people, but they were also decades of mad dreamers, of wild, utopian aspirations – of crazy young folk journeying to a wasteland in Israel and living on the fumes of their messianic visions. The same was true of 1948 or 1967 – tough times, but with dreamy utopians inspiring the rest of the world with their mad hopes. Now it’s all hopelessness, helplessness, narrow visions, defensiveness, status quo. I could say the same for American Judaism. I’m old enough to remember the wild bursts of creativity in the 60’s, and also the 1990’s: havurot, new age Judaism, Jewish feminism, JUBUs, spirituality, Heschel, Reb Zalman, Marshal Meyer, Shlomo Carlebach, new institutions, new music, new ways of thinking. Now it’s back to basics: day schools, summer camps, the tried and true – and pray that we halt the decline that these same institutions did nothing to stop.
Last week’s Torah reading begins with a mad, ambitious dream. Jacob, leaving home, on his way to creating the people of Israel, dreams of angels ascending a ladder to heaven. At the top of the ladder, God tells Jacob, “You will burst forth – north, south, east and west.” It’s an aspirational moment, a vision of greatness and noble purpose. The commentary Or Chaim focuses on one word – v’hinei (“and behold!”) – and suggests that it indicates clarity and true prophecy. It was just a dream, but it was infused with the divine spirit. It became Jacob’s motivating force, his clear ticket to greatness.
But in this week’s reading, Jacob’s reached middle age. He’s a father many times over, and also a grandfather. He’s achieved his youthful dreams; he’s rich, powerful, bursting forth in all directions. But he’s afraid. His more powerful enemy brother approaches, and suddenly Jacob’s formerly wild aspirations narrow to one goal: survive. He has another dream, this one darker, less clear – it’s not even certain that it’s a dream. A spirit or a demon attacks him in the middle of the night and they wrestle until the break of day, leaving Jacob wounded and limping.
But it’s still a vision, hazy, but a renewed aspiration. The weird demon/angel-being blesses him, renames him, bequeaths to him a new purpose. And really, from the point of view of Jewish history, Jacob’s mission has barely begun. He doesn’t fulfill his true destiny until late in life, when he moves his clan to Egypt, and sets in motion the dramatic incidences which give birth to the Jewish people. Jacob manages to dream even in middle age – and his older, stranger vision is ultimately more significant than his crazy youthful dreaming.
I, personally, can take a lesson from Jacob. One doesn’t have to stop dreaming, even in middle age, even in old age. There’s always the possibility for a transformative, wild purpose, even within the daily struggle to survive. But the larger lesson is for all of us, for Jews here and in Israel. We can aspire to more than crisis management, than defensiveness, than preserving the status quo. In the psalm introducing our blessing after meals, we sing “When God returned us to Zion we were like dreamers.” The implication seems to be that we couldn’t believe our good fortune; it was like a dream; we were stupid with gratitude. But we can also read the verse as a promise. Even though God granted us our deepest prayer, we won’t be fully satisfied. We won’t stop dreaming.