I am a congregational rabbi and I run. Not for my health or for exercise. I run from hospital bedside to training a bat mitzvah student to sermon writing to Torah study to moments of prayer to life-cycle celebrations. Most of what I do I consider sacred work that I am privileged to undertake, but sometimes I am so busy running I cannot stop to see the holiness of the place I am in.
At the start of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, our ancestor Jacob is running. He is running away from the father he deceived and the brother he undermined. He is running away from the person that he was. He is running toward his future, to his wives-and-children-to-be, to the person he will yet become. He is so busy running that he hardly cares or notices where he stops for the night. To him, it’s just some place, a makom. He pulls up a rock, puts down his head, and goes to sleep.
And, boom, then it happens. A dream, a ladder of ascending and descending messengers of God, angels even, and a promise from God of land and descendants and protection and return. Jacob awakens and proclaims, “Wow! God is in this place and I didn’t even know it! How awesome this place is.” And he names it Beit El, the house of God. This happens at this random spot he stopped for the night. And so from this we learn that any place, any makom, can be a place where we can experience God’s Presence. The rabbis and mystics extend that idea into the notion that Makom can even be a name for God, the Omnipresent One, the One Who Is In Every Place.
My rabbinic running last week took me to the soup kitchen housed in the basement conference level of Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan. When I was a student at HUC — JIR, we would explain to visiting groups that the seminary building had classrooms for learning Judaism, a chapel for praying Judaism, and a soup kitchen for living Judaism. My congregation takes our seventh- grade class to this soup kitchen so they can bring to life Isaiah’s teaching to share our bread with the hungry. It’s a soup kitchen that is more like a restaurant, where guests are served at their volunteers bring around extra bananas and cookies and coffee, guests can get legal assistance from NYU law students and clothes from the collection closet, and everyone is treated with kavod, dignity and respect.
Our seventh graders, along with the other volunteers, were magnificent that night. Under the caring guidance of the HUC — JIR students who run the soup kitchen, we served nearly 120 people that night. Our Jewish values were manifest in each plate of hot food, each warm smile, each kind conversation.
Near the end of the meal service, one of the guests approached me, asking for an extra carton of milk. He was taller than I am, with a knit cap over his graying hair, well-worn jeans, and a T-shirt, flannel shirt, hoodie, and jacket keeping him warm. A large white cross dangled from a chain about his neck.
I went looking for an extra carton, running back to the kitchen and storeroom, but we had given away all the milk we had that night. I ran back to the dining room and found him near the exit, about to head back up from the basement to the outside world. I told him I was sorry, we had no more milk that night.
He smiled. “That’s all right. I found a carton on another table. And besides, I got a new pair of jeans from the clothing closet. I’m gonna be OK.” He shook my hand and said, “God bless you, brother!” With those words hanging in the air, he left, ascending back up the staircase he had descended half an hour before.
And, boom, I stopped running. It didn’t take a rock for a pillow or a dream in the night. That messenger of the Most High, in the guise of a hungry man in need of a hot meal, had blessed us. I was so focused on helping him and the other guests that I almost missed it. He had offered a blessing for me, for all of us, as surely as God offered a blessing for Jacob.
I know that the work of a soup kitchen is holy work. I know that the basement of my seminary is a sacred place. But I was reminded that night, as I was reminded in studying the words of Vayeitzei this week, that anywhere can be a makom where God’s Presence can be felt. We just have to stop running long enough