It’s a paradox: To find community, I have to find my individual self. Or turn that around: As I find myself in God, I find that I’m part of something much bigger than myself.
Our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all encounter moments of intense solitude on their way to forming the vast extended family of Israel. After Jacob cooperates with his mother, Rebekah, in her plot to gain the paternal blessing for him, his brother Esau starts to harbor murderous thoughts. Isaac wisely sends Jacob away by himself, on a long foot-journey to the ancestral homeland to find a wife. Jacob’s journey contrasts with the way his father Isaac found a wife just a couple of chapters earlier in Genesis. Abraham had sent his trusted servant with a line of camels loaded with goods and gifts. Isaac could remain in his own tent, surrounded by family, as his future was secured. Jacob is on his own.
Ya‘akov went out from Be’er-Sheva and traveled toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed the night there, because the sun had set. He took a stone from the place, put it under his head and lay down there to sleep. (Gen 28:10–11, CJB)
The “certain place” that Jacob finds is remote. It’s the sort of place you can imagine if you’ve ever done wilderness camping. It’s not a campground filled with tents, RVs, and campfires. This is backcountry, far from machinery, pavement, utilities—off the grid and under the stars. It’s beautiful but lonely, especially if you are all by yourself, lying on the ground with minimal comforts, like a stone for a head rest (which in Jacob’s case was probably cushioned by his wadded-up cloak).
In this lonely place, Jacob dreams:
There before him was a ladder resting on the ground with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of Adonai were going up and down on it. Then suddenly Adonai was standing there next to him; and he said, “I am Adonai, the God of Avraham your [grand]father and the God of Yitz’chak. The land on which you are lying I will give to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the grains of dust on the earth. (Gen 28:12–14a CJB)
Solitary, off-the-grid Jacob discovers that he’s not alone at all. He’s surrounded by angels, and then Adonai himself appears. Jacob connects with God in this lonely place. And there’s more because when Adonai speaks directly to Jacob, he connects him with community past—citing his fathers Avraham and Yitzchak—and future—promising descendants beyond number.
Jacob’s lone journey leaves everyone behind, but then it connects him with his community past and future.
The Barna study of Jewish Millennials I recently cited in What Makes Community Work? states, “While Christian Millennials lean heavily on individuals … in discerning their values, Jewish Millennials tend to rely on the collective” (https://j4j.co/barnabonus). Contemporary Christian spirituality tends to be individualistic. When I have occasion to visit churches or Christian events, I’m often struck by how many of the worship songs are in first-person singular, speaking about God and his goodness in terms of my personal experience.
Pop Christian spirituality sometimes seems to be all about “me and Jesus,” and Messianic Jewish spirituality can follow suit. Instead of confronting the alienation and isolation of 21st century life, it softens it into a more livable version. It says that each one of us has had a personal, undeniable, transformative encounter with God, and community connection is optional compared with that. Thank God for our personal experience with him, but if you leave it at that, you miss a major component of spiritual life.
Jewish culture on the other hand, religious or not, tends to be more communally minded, with an emphasis on belonging before believing. This sometimes becomes belonging instead of believing. The reality of a personal, undeniable, transformative encounter with God can be neglected amid the riches of communal life and commitment. But in truth the two are inseparable. As I grow in personal spiritual development, I love, appreciate, and serve the community where I belong. For Messianic Jews, that community includes both the universal ekklesia, or body of Messiah, and klal Yisrael, the Jewish people.
Jacob wakes up from his dream to declare, “Truly, Adonai is in this place — and I didn’t know it!” (Gen 28:16). Jacob’s ladder has become an icon of individual, personal, transformative encounter with God. But the God Jacob encounters plants him in the midst of community.
If our private spiritual practice doesn’t inspire and strengthen our connection with a living community, it’s incomplete.
In my work both as a rabbi and a therapist, I often recommend solitary practices like prayerful silence, and slow and deep reading of Scripture, and I practice these myself. It can feel lonely with our Facebook friends tuned out and our media silenced, but that’s where we connect with God, and with community as well.
I’ve been in Ephesians for weeks now, slowly reading and digesting its words. Starting in 3:14, Paul prays that we’ll be strengthened in our inner being, that Messiah will dwell in our hearts, and that we’ll be rooted and grounded in his love. These requests all seem intensely personal and inward. But as I was contemplating this prayer recently, verse 18 jumped out at me: “So that you, with all God’s people, will be given strength to grasp the breadth, length, height and depth of the Messiah’s love” (emphasis added).
We don’t get the full dose of Messiah’s love all by ourselves, but only alongside all of God’s people.
“Spirituality” remains a popular term in our increasingly secular culture, and it’s often used to sidestep tradition, community and commitment. Instead let’s follow our father Jacob, who found God in the lonely place, and also found connection with his community past and future.