Waking up is hard to do – Jacob, Thanksgiving, and Groundhog Day

November 22, 2012 at 5:19 pm, by

“Then put your little hand in mine / There ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb… Babe… / I got you babe… I got you babe…”

For anyone who watched ‘Groundhog Day’ (1993) this song is etched indelibly in our minds, as Bill Murray’s weatherman Phil wakes up on the same day, over and over again.

It may be that you don’t immediately associate ‘Groundhog Day’ with either the season of Thanksgiving or the story of Jacob that we read in this week’s torah reading of Vayeitzei. After all, Groundhog Day marks the potential for winter’s end, depending on whether Phil the groundhog sees his shadow or not, while Thanksgiving is firmly grounded in the autumn, marking the beginning of winter with a harvest festival of plenty.

But if we focus on the experience of waking up, we will see that all these things are intimately connected.

“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”

As this week’s torah reading opens in Genesis 28, Jacob has had to flee his home to escape the vengeance of his brother Esau, who has promised to kill Jacob as soon as their father passes away for stealing his birthright and his blessing. En route to the home of his uncle Laban, Jacob stops for the night in the middle of nowhere and has his famous dream. He sees a ladder with angels going up and down it, and at the top is God himself who promises that He will be with Jacob throughout his travels.

In the morning, ‘Jacob awoke from his sleep, and said: “Surely God is in this place; and I did not know.”’ (Genesis 28:16)

Jacob experiences this profound moment of waking, realises that God was in this place all along, and names the place House of God and the Gate of Heaven.

“Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”

In Jewish liturgy we have a prayer that tries to capture this profound waking experience and make us profoundly aware that every day is a special opportunity and a gift of God.

Upon waking, the first thing a Jew should say is:

“I am thankful to You, living and eternal King, for having returned my soul to me in mercy, for great is your faithfulness.”

Each moment of waking up is a moment of profound gratitude that we have survived the night and have another day full of promise and opportunity ahead of us. Every day we remember that ‘God was in this place’, and our reaction is giving thanks.

“Today is tomorrow. It happened.”

This is of course Phil’s great problem – each moment of waking up is not a new day but the same day again. Every day is the same, and nothing matters.

It’s only when he realises the opportunities available to him, to make this one groundhog day as good as it possibly can be, is he able to finally move on to the next day.

Only after what might be a lifetime of February 2nds, can Phil finally have February 3rd.

And his joy and wonder in that moment expresses a deeply profound realisation of the significance of time – that finally what he does matters once again.

Whatever happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now… because I love you.”

Sometimes we feel like Phil, stuck in an endless series of meaningless days, going through the same routines, the same drudgery, without end in sight.

But in truth we are like Jacob, waking up to days with endless possibilities, to days where we can recognise the divine in our world, finding joy and hope in places we didn’t know were possible.

And in recognising this gift of time, we will experience the deepest sense of gratitude, the wonder of Thanksgiving.

Roni Tabick is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. You can read more of his personal work here: www.mythicwriting.blogspot.com.

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