I gave birth in July of 2019, and up until a week ago, I had been at every single bedtime my kid has ever had. That’s about 770 bedtimes, which is a lot, whichever way you slice it. A week ago, though, I had to take our arthritic cat to get an x-ray in Queens and I got home too late. Instead of nursing him, reading a few books, and kissing him good night, I FaceTimed him from a parking lot outside a PetSmart. My wife put him to sleep, and he fell asleep just fine.
The next morning we snuggled some extra snuggles, and all was well with the world.
Last night was different. It was the first time I intentionally missed bedtime, which feels momentous in a whole other way. I made the active choice to go to a professional event, which meant explaining that mama has to work, giving him a kiss and a hug, and heading out the door while he was still eating dinner.
Again, my wife put him to sleep and he fell asleep just fine. And, despite some guilt about missing bedtime, I actually had a great evening with other adults. It felt … normal.
When I got home, my wife and I tip-toed into my kiddo’s bedroom and peered into his crib. The room was thick with his sweet sleeping-toddler smell, and he lay tangled in his blanket, hair mussed and both arms flung out as though in flight. We stood there for a second or two, breathing his sweetness. Then, all of a sudden, he opened his eyes and looked directly at me. Just for a moment.
We scurried out of the room (the last thing any parent wants is to accidentally wake their sleeping child) and closed the door. He didn’t wake up.
Afterward, when I was laying in our own bed and trying to sleep, I wondered if he’d seen us, if we’d become a part of his dream somehow.
I hoped so.
This week’s Torah portion is full of growing pains and dreams, too. It begins with one of the most well-known visions in the Torah — Jacob’s dream of the angels ascending and descending a ladder. Jacob has left his parents’ home (he’s fleeing the twin brother he swindled in last week’s portion) and is on his own in the wilderness. “He had a dream; a ladder was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it,” says Genesis 28:12-13, “And the Lord was standing beside him.”
Jacob will go on to do a great many things in this portion and the ones that follow, and his actions are, at times, questionable. I, for one, am not a huge fan of the way in which he tricks Laban out of the best sheep and goats (in Genesis 30:31–43) before literally heading for the hills. Sure, Laban was no sweet cherub himself (that bait-and-switch with Leah and Rachel is pretty awful), but that doesn’t make Jacob’s actions ok. Two wrongs, as we all know, do not make a right.
Forgetting all that for a moment, when I read about Jacob setting out on his own I imagine him as he must have been on that night. He’s a young man, never been on his own before, in the desert. Alone. Maybe he started out excited by the journey (anything can happen when you’re on your own!), but now darkness is falling all around and he’s beginning to get nervous (anything can happen when you’re on your own), looking for comfort.
On this first, dark night God steps in to console Jacob. “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you,” says God in Genesis 28:15. Jacob awakes and declares that this place is imbued with the divine. He names it Bethel, literally ‘House of God.’
Then Jacob vows that, so long as God remains faithful to him, he will remain faithful to God. He sets up an altar to mark the place. Fortified by the knowledge that he isn’t completely alone in the world, he is able to continue on.
Seen one way, we can imagine that Jacob has happened upon a sacred space as he wandered. What good fortune! Seen another way, though, Jacob kind of missed the point. It’s not that God is in this spot, it’s that God is in Jacob himself. “I will protect you wherever you go,” God reassures him, and I think He means, “you’ll never be really alone because you are the sacred space.” At least in part.
We all have parts of our guides and loved ones within us. Wherever we go, we carry them along for the ride. In a way, we’re never really alone.
Thinking about this makes it easier to create space between my baby and myself. I know, in my head, that creating space is important for both of us. We will both grow by being apart, and as he gets bigger this will only happen more and more often. I know that will always break my heart a little. How could it not? But knowing that I’m always with him and he’s always with me, in dreams and otherwise, helps a little.