Vayetze: Be Fully Present

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetzei

Dear Friends:

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Vayetzei, in which Ya’akov runs away from his brother and goes back to his mother’s hometown, Haran, to seek out his uncle Lavan and find a bride. As you probably remember- Yaakov falls in love with Rachel, and serves his uncle seven years in order to marry her, but is tricked into marrying Leah, her older sister. Uncle Lavan then promises Ya’akov he can marry Rachel too:

“Wait until the bridal week of this one is over and we will give you that one too, provided you serve me another seven years.” (Bereshit/ Genesis 29:27)

Well, that sounds like a complicated family situation- being married to two cousins at once with a deceitful uncle for a father-in-law- but let’s leave Ya’akov’s personal life aside for the moment and instead focus on the verse above, in which Lavan says that Ya’akov must wait until the “bridal week” of festivities for Leah’s wedding is over before he can then marry Rachel. At least one commentator says that this the Biblical source of the rabbinic principle of ein me’arvin simcha b’simcha, [don’t mix one joy with another], which usually means we don’t (typically) schedule a simcha, a happy occasion, like a wedding or bat mitzvah, on another happy occasion, like a major Jewish festival. (Note: sometimes there are special circumstances; this is a general principle, with exceptions to be determined locally.)

At first consideration, this might seem counter-intuitive: why not add joy to joy, and have a wedding on Sukkot, for example? You’d have two happy and fun occasions and the themes from one might make the other even more meaningful. Yes, but. . . . . . ein me’arvin simcha b’simcha teaches us to be fully present in the unique joy of each occasion. To put it back into our Torah portion: how could Ya’akov, and Lavan, and the other family and townsfolk, really focus on rejoicing over Leah if they were also rejoicing over Rachel’s bridal week, and vice versa?

Each of our major Biblical holidays- Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot (leaving aside Yom Kippur, for obvious reasons)- has a set of spiritual and ethical concepts, as well as specific mitzvot or spiritual practices, such as building a Sukkah, blowing the Shofar, etc. Each year, Judaism challenges us to experience the unique teachings of each holiday, and move ourselves into the kavannah, or intentionality/focus/consciousness of the season.

Just as important- at each simcha or happy event, our task is to focus on the family: honoring the bat mitzvah by attentively hearing her read and teach Torah; gladdening the bride and groom; giving support and congratulations to the parents and grandparents. If we’re focused on having a meaningful holiday experience- we’re not focused on the life-event, and vice versa, and never mind the gazillions of practical tasks for a wedding or bar mitzvah that would distract from the holy day.

So that’s the traditional application of ein me’arvin simcha b’simcha, but I also think it can be broadened to mean: create opportunities in your life to be fully present on the experience at hand, which may not be possible doing two, or three, or many tasks at once. You can’t multi-task spirituality; it takes focus, simplicity, attention, clarity.

It’s not just about Leah and Rachel; it’s about all of us, choosing to be fully present in both our spiritual practices and in our relationships with friends and family, which may sometimes mean creating unique times for our joys, in order to experience them fully.

Shabbat Shalom,


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