We all have the power to imagine. We are endowed by our Creator to also be creative! From the Holy Creative One comes every leaf, every tree, every raindrop and every tear. Through this legacy of creativity we have the power to visualize a better world. Our religion enlivened by our faith teaches us that we can see a reality that is in fact greater than our present reality! By cultivating our creative powers we can focus our social inventiveness toward visions of justice and ultimately holiness.
This week’s Torah portion exemplifies imagination, imbued with the power of God, in its fullest sense. Jacob flees his parent’s encampment in fear of his brother, Esau’s violent temper and potentially vengeful spirit. The portion today is called Vayetze, “literally “going out.” Commentators have questioned why it is necessary to record where Jacob is leaving from since it is his destination, Haran that appears most important. In many ways Vayetze represents his separation from his dependent state in Beersheba, as he flees the protection of an over invested mother, an apparently distant father and a brother who wants to kill him, to his process of becoming his own unique person in Haran. The move is in many ways traumatic, as he lives out a story of struggle that began in his mother’s womb. In fact his entire story is one of struggle, as we are reminded that true joy always comes after the struggle.
So he comes to rest at a place called Luz placing his head upon a stone as a pillow. There he dreams of ladders stretching from the earth to the heavens, a multitude of heavenly beings ascending and descending. Through this encounter of creative thought, the God of Israel communicates a renewal and extension of His covenant with Abraham and Isaac to the third generation and beyond to all future generations of the Jewish people. Jacob affirms the reality of this encounter and states, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I wasn’t even aware of it (Genesis 28:16).” It is not completely evident from the text exactly how the dream is a reflection of reality, but it is clear that Jacob is brought into a completely new level of encounter, relationship and purpose as a result. This kind of vision and potential in the Divine/human encounter has been dubbed by Christian theologian Walter Brueggemann as the “evangelical imagination”. His choice of terminology is not meant to associate this concept with any particular religious movement; rather he is referring to the capacity for faith to give us a glimpse into the good news of God’s nearness. This good news engenders hope when we choose to see it as a reality more authentic than our present reality.
Unfortunately in a world presently adrift in hopelessness, many people have chosen to abandon any vision of Godly encounter. John Lennon who was a “committed atheist” wrote his famous anthem Imagine to promote his “utopian dream” of a world without religion. Disillusioned with religious systems that behaved badly, Lennon asked the disenchanted and disenfranchised to imagine a world where there is “no heaven or hell.” Six years ago, in the wake of the acts of violent terrorism in Paris Charlie Hepbo cartoonist Joann Sfar shared a drawing asking people not to #PrayForParis. The cartoon stated,
“Friends from the whole world, thank you for the #PrayForParis, but we don’t need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and Joy! #ParisIsAboutLife!”
In Sfar’s limited imagination, all religion is the same. When our imagination parts ways with the Creator’s purposes we only augment our feelings of loneliness and loss. In the face of hopelessness, Godly imagination can sadly halt at the epicurean’s table. “Eat, drink for tomorrow we die.” The most recent pew survey indicates that the majority of young adults who have grown up in religious congregations have abandoned these communities. It is not surprising that the same demographic group is showing the largest uptick in suicide occurrence since the great depression.
But there is hope! Jacob grew up in the quintessential religious home! His parents were renowned for their faith. There is nothing he wanted more than his father’s blessing, yet it came reluctantly. He ran from his home only to encounter the Holy Blessing One in the midst of his despair. There surprised by an encounter with the God of his parents he is able to exclaim, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I wasn’t even aware of it.” Our own evangelical imagination can allow us to enter into the stories of our ancestors and envision the hopes and the promises that God gave for our sakes.
Martin Luther King, a man of great faith had a dream, the capacity to imagine a time when racism would come to an end and people would live together in harmony. We are not there yet. More African Americans are incarcerated than were ever in chains during the entire duration of American slavery. This past year has seen violent protests of racially motivated acts of violence against people of color, and racial bigotry and anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head in a way it has not in decades in this country. In Europe religious and ethnic motivated violence is a daily occurrence. But the first black president is finishing his second term in office suggesting, if even in a small way that Dreaming with our Creator will eventually come to a happy conclusion.
A better world may take time, but those with Godly imagination can see a reality greater than the present reality. A time is coming when the world will be made right and the lion will lie down with the lamb. Along with our ancestor Jacob we can see the heavens open and angels ascend and descend upon hamakom, the place where place where we encounter the Creator, a place realized in Messiah. Yeshua encouraged Nathaniel in use his evangelical imagination, “You will see angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (Yochanon 1:51) With this imagination we can help affect the transformation of this world. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched in Selma, Alabama with Dr. King, “Great is the challenge that we face every moment, sublime the occasion, every occasion. Here we are contemporaries of God, some of His power at our disposal.”
In the words taken from Hatikva, the national anthem of Israel, Od lo avda tikva-teinu, “our hope is not yet lost”. As long as we can imagine the world that Hashem has promised, as long as we can dream, we have the power to “do all things through Messiah who strengthens us.”