“The perilous season is middle age.” So wrote pioneering educator Elizabeth Palmer Peabody in 1838. Her letter goes on to describe middle age as a time “when a false wisdom tempts them to doubt the divine origin of the dreams of their youth.”
Parashat Vayetzei begins with an account of a youthful dream of decidedly divine origin. Young Jacob, on the run and in fear of his brother Esau, finds himself in the middle of nowhere at nightfall. “And he took from among the stones in that spot in order to put under his head, and he lay down in that place. And he dreamt that there was a ladder set upon the earth whose top reached to heaven, and the angels of God were going up and down upon it.”
Bible scholar Nahum Sarna remarks that “visual imagery and an auditory sensation are the manifest content of the dream.” [JPS Torah Commentary, p. 198] Indeed, Jacob assigns meaning to the theophany he has just experienced. “And Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Adonai is indeed present in this place, and I did not know it.’” For Jacob, the dream means that God will be with him in this particular journey, and perhaps wherever his life journey takes him.
Jacob renames the place of his dream ‘Bethel’ – Beyt El in Hebrew – God’s house. No place, anyplace, can be the house of God; for Jacob (and for us?) that’s the dream’s ‘content.’ When Jacob returns to Canaan twenty plus years later, it is to this very spot that he comes, even naming it Beyt El a second time! A renewed theophany, a new marker, a second recounting of Jacob’s name change to Israel, all happen at this no place at Canaan’s edge.
Jacob manages, in middle age, to retain the ‘divine origin of the dreams of (his) youth.’ Elizabeth Peabody sees in middle age a kind of ‘acquiescence’ to the world as it is, a concession that she detests. As one well into those middle years, I hear her words as a profound challenge. Jacob’s model comforts me. My Beyt El, and yours too, is out there to be rediscovered, renewed, and redeemed.