Archive for Vayeitze

Vayeitze: Two Camps

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetzei

Yaakov went on his way, and angels of God encountered him.

When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Machana’im. (Bereshit/Genesis 32:2-3)

Good afternoon!

In the beginning of this week’s portion, Yaakov is a single man on the run from his brother, and by the end of the portion, he’s got two wives, two concubines, many children and much wealth as he heads back to the land of Israel. As he approaches the Land of Israel, he sees angels (literally “messengers”) of God, and names the place “machana’im,” or “double-camps,” a foreshadowing of the two camps into which he will divide his family as his brother Esav approaches a few verses later (but in the next Torah portion.)

The phrase machana’im, or two-camps, is not immediately clear from the context. Some commentators say the two camps were one for the angels and one for Yaakov and his family, but Rashi says there were two camps of angels. According to Rashi, one camp was for the angels who minister outside the Land of Israel, and one camp for the angels who minister in the Land. These latter had come to meet Yaakov, hence, two camps.

Now, that is a nice way of emphasizing the special relationship that Yaakov- and all his descendants, who are the Jewish people- have with the Land of Israel, but I also think it’s more than that. For Yaakov, the Land of Israel is where is family and destiny are, a family he’s been avoiding for twenty years since he stole his brother’s birthright and blessing. He was worked hard and lived by his wits since leaving home, but facing his brother and providing for his large family is a different set of challenges than the ones he’s had while living with his father-in-law.

In other words, what has helped him survive and succeed up until now may not be what he needs going forward- he now needs different angels, a different sensibility and sense of responsibility. This time, he cannot outwit his brother, but must humble himself and give respect to the one he deceived so many years before. Again, that’s in next week’s portion but the two-camps allusion is unmistakable.

There’s a business book with the title “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There:” the idea is that a set of skills or talents that help you rise to a certain station won’t be enough over the long term. This is even more true of the spiritual side of life: Yaakov’s angels outside the land may have gotten him much wealth, but only the angels of humility and repentance can lead him to offer that wealth to his brother as a peace-offering. The different camps of angels can be understood as different orientations or spiritual qualities which are needed at different stages of life. Yaakov was lucky enough to see the two camps, but guidance towards new ways of being is often right in front of us, if we too will choose to see it.

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.


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Vayeitze: Pillars of Truth

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. (Bereshit/ Genesis 28:11)

Thereupon Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. (31:45)

Good morning!

One reason we read the Torah portions in a repeating yearly cycle is that we see new things as our perspective changes over time. I never really noticed it before, but this year it just lept out at me that the Torah portion Vayeitze begins and ends with Yaakov picking up stones from the ground, but in the twenty years the portion covers, the stones come to mean very different things.

In the first verse above, from the very beginning of the portion, Yaakov is on the run from his brother Esav and all alone in the wilderness, with only a stone for a pillow. He has a marvelous vision of a ladder to heaven, but his rock pillow seems to symbolize how alone and bereft he is, how literally uncomfortable it is to be running away from the consequences of one’s choices, and in this case, the father he deceived and the brother he despoiled. That discomfort may be the catalyst to Yaakov’s spiritual vision, but he didn’t know that at the time- he simply had nothing left but a rock for a pillow.

The second stone, twenty years later, is one that Yaakov sets up as a witness to pact he makes his father in law Lavan. After working for Lavan two decades, marrying his two daughters and greatly increasing his family’s wealth, Yaakov has another vision, one that tells him to get going home, back to the land of Israel and the family from whom he fled. Lavan chases after him, asking why he took his daughters and grandchildren without saying goodbye. Yaakov protests that after all his years of working for Lavan, he would have been sent away empty-handed, but eventually the two of them swear a pact by the stone pillar that Yaakov sets up: Yaakov will care for Lavan’s daughters, and the two men will live at peace, each one on his own side of the stone pillar.

It strikes me that the two stones in our story represent two stages of Yaakov’s life. The rock under his head represents the consequences of his deception, his moral confusion, his insecurity (physical and emotional), or as we might say, “hitting rock bottom” after deceiving his father to steal his brother’s birthright. The second stone, on the other hand, is one that Yaakov himself raises up and swears by. Note that in the beginning, Yaakov is alone because he deceived his father using his brother’s voice, but after twenty years, he is able to articulate his own vows and his state his own concerns quite clearly to his father in law when protesting Lavan’s pursuit. Perhaps this is why the second stone is set up as a pillar rather than laying passive as a pillow: because Yaakov has found his voice and spoken from conscience, he his now able to use the stone to represent the clarity of his moral vision and personal integrity rather than being a symbol of his alienation and vulnerability.

I’ve often thought that we are called the people Israel, after Yaakov, because he of all the patriarchs and matriarchs, he shows the greatest arc of spiritual and moral maturation over the course of his life. Like most of us, he has ethical and emotional lapses and failures, but over time, he wrestles with God and finds the blessing in his long journeys, even though there was heartbreak and failure along the way. It may have taken Yaakov twenty years, but he picked himself up off the ground and made worthy vows in the presence of God and the assembled camps. The two stones of Vayetze show us that we too can rise up and speak truth without fear, if our conscience is clear and our dreams lead us to become our better selves.

Shabbat Shalom,


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Vayetzei: Humility of Knowledge

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetzei

Leah had weak eyes . . . (Bereshit/ Genesis 29:17)

Good afternoon!

This week’s Torah portion is really the beginning of the story of the Jewish people: Yaakov flees to his uncle Lavan, marries two of his cousins (Rakhel and Leah), has lots of children with his wives and their maidservants (!), and by the end of the portion is headed back to the Land of Israel. Among the most famous stories in Vayetzei is Lavan’s trickery in getting Yaakov to marry his older daughter, Leah, before her younger sister, Rakhel, whom Yaakov loved and desired.

Rakhel is described as beautiful, but we only learn that einai Leah rakot, “Leah’s eyes were weak,” [alternatively “soft,” or “tender”]. A famous midrash quoted by Rashi explains that Leah’s eyes were weak or soft because she had been crying, assuming along with other folks that if Yaakov were going to marry her younger sister Rahkel, then she’d have to marry his older brother Esav, who was not thought of as a particularly admirable character by the ancient rabbis.

On the one hand, the midrash has a certain logic to it- two sisters for two brothers, and the Torah itself mentions that the elder should be married before the younger- but on the other hand, what a great example of the human tendency to create great imaginary dramas before all the facts are in. Taking this interpretation at face value, Leah was crying over something that not only didn’t happen, but might not have been planned by anybody!

We so often think we know what others are thinking, and sometimes react to something that is purely an assumption or projection. We so often make up our minds that disaster looms ahead- and it might, but it might not, or might not be as bad as we think, or we might be much stronger that we assume. What is so poignant about the image of Leah crying over her marriage to Esav is that the text gives us so little reason to assume this was her fate; I wish she had at least asked her father about his plans before crying her eyes out!

An aspect of the virtue of humility is knowing what we don’t know- and knowing that there is much that we don’t know can leave us much more open to what is, rather than what we want, fear, assume, project or imagine. If there is much I don’t know, then there is much to learn, and many questions to ask, and the possibilities are endless.

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayetze: When a Righteous Man Departs From the City

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetze

Yaakov left Beer-sheva, and set out for Haran. . . . (Bereshit/ Genesis 28:10)

Good afternoon! It’s been a tough week here in the Hudson Valley; we laid to rest not one but two noted survivors of the Shoah, both from Poland, both escapees from the ghetto as teens, and both Levi’im.

Before I reflect on the lives of Nachman Kamlot and Kuba Beck, let’s go back to our Torah portion for a moment. Last week Yaakov deceives his father and steals his brother’s birthright; Esav is furious (understandably) and their mother sends Yaakov away to avoid his brother’s wrath. This week we open our Torah portion with the verse above, which begs an obvious question: why does the text have to mention that Yaakov left Beer-sheva? Is it not obvious that he had to leave somewhere if we merely mention that he’s heading for Haran?

Our friend Rashi offers a beautiful homiletic interpretation, gleaned from an earlier text:

“But this tells [us] that the departure of a righteous man from a place makes an impression, for while the righteous man is in the city, he is its beauty, he is its splendor, he is its majesty. When he departs from there, its beauty has departed, its radiance has departed, its majesty has departed. . .

Note well what constitutes beauty, radiance and majesty (hod, ziv and hadar, in that order): it’s not physical beauty, or style or riches, but moral standing. The irony, of course, is that Yaakov is on the run precisely because he did something deceptive, but the rabbis see him as a tzadik, a righteous man, perhaps on the basis of his overall life and not only his deeds at that moment.

Extrapolating Rashi’s point from its immediate context, we see a larger Jewish idea: that communities are deeply affected by the best of their people, whose loss affects us in ways that are not always obvious or immediate. Beauty is a quality of the spirit, not only of the body; majesty is not in power or politics, but in living every day with honor, courage and kindness.

Here in Poughkeepsie, one of the men we just buried, Kuba Beck, spent the last decades of his life telling his story of rescue by Oskar Schindler to any person or group who would listen, so the dead would not be forgotten but also so that the world would know that there were decent men even among the German occupiers. He was committed to a world without hate or bigotry, precisely because he knew that collective judgments lead to evil; condemning all Germans meant condemning the man who saved his life at risk to his own. His gentle ways and love of his community, synagogue and people inspired all who met him.

We also buried Nachman Kamlot, our long-time Torah reader and a scholar of Jewish history, texts, language and literature. Nachman didn’t tell his story all over the country like Kuba did; rather, he simply lived out his commitment to Jewish life: both the Jewish life destroyed in his youth but also the Jewish life very much alive in Poughkeepsie. He taught Hebrew to younger students and Yiddish at Vassar College; he read Torah and led our daily minyan; he made jokes with Yiddish punchlines (some of which I understood) and merely by being present evoked a glorious Jewish world in prewar Europe.

Our high school students did persuade Nachman to tell his story to the camera and I was amazed to learn of his courage and resilience while evading the enemy for as long as he could. When asked what the students should take from his story of escape and survival and resettlement, he had a one-word answer: read. Read Jewish history and Jewish literature- know where you came from!

These men, with their dignity, piety and quiet heroism, were the beauty, the radiance and the majesty of our community. We grieve not only for their deaths but for the opportunity to hear again the names and stories from the Jewish world of their childhoods, so different from and yet so deeply connected to our own, and why our duty of remembrance is a a sacred task.

Shabbat Shalom,



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Vayetze: Stop Running

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetzei

“Yaakov left Beersheeva, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set . . . . .” (Bereshit/ Genesis 28:10-11)

Good afternoon!

I hope everybody is finding something for which to be thankful this weekend. As for me, I am grateful to be staying far away from malls and shopping today!

Last week we left our our forefather Yaakov in a bit of a pickle. He had stolen his brother’s blessing from their father and as you can imagine, that brother, Esav, was not very happy, and in fact threatened to kill Yaakov, prompting their mother, Rivka, to send Yaakov back to her hometown for a while till things calmed down. Yaakov sets out for Haran, where Rivka’s brother lives, and has a tremendous spiritual experience in the middle of the desert, where he has stopped to sleep with a stone for a pillow.

Our friend Rashi notices something unusual about the verse above: first the verse says that Yaakov stopped to sleep for the night, and then it says that the sun had gone down. It’s a bit clearer in the Hebrew than in the JPS translation above, but you still get the idea: it might have made more chronological sense to say, “the sun went down, so Yaakov stopped for the night.”

Rashi, basing himself on earlier texts, teaches that this unusual ordering shows that the sun itself went down in an unusual way- not at its ordinary time but suddenly, so that Yaakov would have to stop for the night. This may be connected to the tradition that the particular place Yaakov stopped was Mount Moriah- the site of the binding of Yitzhak and the future Temple of Jerusalem- about which we’ll say more in the future. To me, the image of the sun suddenly setting, so that Yaakov was forced to stop his flight, suggests not an astronomical miracle but an internal realization that he could not outrun his own brokenness.

Judaism teaches a profound path of the deepest joy, but no life escapes its periods of darkness and the need for introspection. Yaakov took his brother’s birthright and their father’s blessing, either because he wasn’t thinking of the consequences or was willing to live with them, but it could hardly have been less than devastating to be forced from the family home at precisely the moment he’d set himself up as the family’s honored heir. I read Rashi’s comment as a metaphor for the darkness of spirit that must have come upon Yaakov when he realized the consequences of his actions; being forced to lie there for the night is a way of expressing the necessity for contemplation of one’s broken places precisely at the moment when we’re whipping ourselves into a frenzy in order to avoid them.

Of course, confronting and inhabiting the inevitability of “night”- that is, being brought to the place of soul-accounting and admission that life has become unmanageable- also brought Yaakov a profound religious experience, complete with a vision of a ladder reaching to the heavens and angels going up and down. Not all of us are so fortunate as to have such a revelation, but the it’s universal experience that we sometimes need  to stop our frenetic motion in order to open ourselves up morally, emotionally and spiritually. This might take the form of meditation, contemplation, Torah study, prayer, spiritual direction or just sitting quietly with our own souls, but like Yaakov, sometimes you just have to stop running to sense the Divine Presence and discern a new direction.

Shabbat Shalom,


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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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Vayeitze: The Gate of Heaven

Good morning!

It was a beautiful holiday in Poughkeepsie- a glorious fall day for feasting or hiking and all kinds of merriment. So if you’re recovering from too much Thanksgiving (the meal, not the spiritual practice of giving thanks- can’t have too much of that), well, perhaps a good walk would be in order, because in addition to the exercise, you never know what you’ll encounter out on the trail.

Which brings us, of course, to the Torah portion Vayeitze, which begins with our forefather Yaakov out in the wilderness, on the lam after stealing his brother’s blessing, asleep at night while a miraculous ladder or ziggurat appears in a vision:

“He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.  And the Lord was standing beside him. . . . Yaakov awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!’  Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.’ ” (Bereshit 28:12, 16-17)

Our friend Rashi brings many interesting midrashim and interpretations to this story, of which two in particular resonate with our theme this year of connecting the parsha to prayer and liturgy. First, Rashi notes that when Yaakov arrived at the place of his vision, the sun had set, and the peculiar verb used for “to arrive” is connected to a verse in Jeremiah that speaks of prayer. Thus, the ancient sages say that Yaakov prayed the evening prayer- ma’ariv– out in this place, all alone in the night.

Then he falls asleep and has his vision of the ladder or stairway to heaven, and now things get really interesting. Rashi comments on the verse quoted above, that the place of Yaakov’s vision was “the abode of God,” and concludes that the center part of the ladder was opposite Jerusalem, which housed (generations after Yaakov) the Temple, the “house of God.” Rashi brings an earlier text that the foot of the ladder was in Beersheva (where Yaakov came from) and the top was in Beit-El, north of Jerusalem- so the middle part was right opposite the Temple itself.

Now, this is a fun midrash and it connects the “abode of God” in Yaakov’s vision with the “house of God” of later Biblical history, but there’s a problem: Yaakov may call the place Beit-El, the “house of God,” but the Torah tells us it used to be called Luz, which is not Jerusalem at all! (Cf. verse 19.)  So now Rashi says something astounding: he says the ladder was opposite the Temple Mount because the Mount itself was “uprooted” from its place to the wilderness where he slept!

As I read it, the point is not that mountains move while we sleep, but that the “house of God” is a portable concept, limited not by geography but by our openness and perception. In other words- if Yaakov’s bed of rocks in the desert and the earthly Temple were both described as the “house of God,” it implies that anywhere we have radical openness to the Sacred is like the Temple Mount, holy not because of geography but because of theophany. That is, a sacred place is not where we stand, but how we see.

This, to me, is also why Rashi goes out on a midrashic limb to connect the setting sun to ma’ariv, the evening prayer- because what better way to imagine Yaakov opening himself up to a vision of the heavens than through the humility of petition and thanksgiving?

Unfortunately, I can’t promise that praying ma’ariv will lead to vision of the Divine like Yaakov’s. However, I do believe that prayer, which is the choice to open ourselves to the Presence, deepens our spiritual perception, so that we are better able to see the connection between heaven and earth, between the sacred aspect of life and the reality of our improbable journeys. To put it another way, with an open heart, anywhere you are can be the gate of Heaven.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- To see the text of the Torah portion and haftarah, go here.

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