Archive for Vayeitze

Vayeitze: Exile and Return

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Vayeutze, which tells the
story of Ya’akov after he journeyed from Beersheva towards Haran,
leaving his family home after stealing the blessing belonging to his
brother. Ya’akov gets married- twice- and has a large family while
working for his father in law, Lavan. Yet the story is full of tension
and drama: Ya’akov, the deceiver, is in turn deceived by his father in
law, who substitutes Leah for Rachel on the wedding night, and the two
men spend many years seemingly wary of each other before Ya’akov
decides to go home again.

This narrative background helps us understand the haftarah for this
week, which comes from the book of Hosea. Ashkenazim read Hosea
12:13-14:10, but the Sephardic tradition is to read the preceding
chapters: 11:7 – 12:14. This week we’ll look at the opening of the
Ashkenazi version:

Then Ya’akov had to flee to the land of Aram;
There Yisrael served for a wife,
For a wife he had to guard [sheep].
But when the Lord
Brought Yisrael up from Egypt,
It was through a prophet;
Through a prophet they were guarded. (Hosea 12:13-14)

The text goes on to describe the rebuke and defeat of “Ephraim,” or
the northern kingdom of Israel, as well as its eventual salvation and
return to God. You’ll see above the obvious connection to our Torah
portion: just as Ya’akov had to “flee” his hometown, so too would his
descendants, the nation of Israel, have to one day leave their land
and go down to Egypt, where they would someday be redeemed. The
further implication seems clear to me: as God sent a prophet to the
Israelites in Egypt (Moshe), God sends one to them in Hosea’s time,
with the task of lifting them up out of sin.

By linking Ya’akov’s flight from Beersheva to Haran- a personal exile-
with the exile of the nation in Egypt, the text allows us to connect
the stories of our ancestors with the stories of our nation, and vice
versa. What happened to Ya’akov is prologue to what happened to our
people as a whole- but even more importantly, the reverse is also
true. That is, the stories of our people – of exile to Egypt, of
turning away from the covenant in prophetic times, of eventual return
and triumph- are also stories about individuals, who – like Ya’akov-
go on personal journeys of exile and return, of conflict and
reconciliation, of despair and renewal.

If Ya’akov’s journey- from exile to home again to his final years with
his sons in Egypt- is a foreshadowing of our journey as a people, then
the journey of our people is can also been seen as symbolic of a
person’s lifetime as well. Just as God promises in this haftarah to
take the people back if they return, so are we- as individuals-
promised that t’shuvah, returning, is always possible. Even Ya’akov,
after twenty some years, returned home. Exile and estrangement, as an
inner condtion of the soul, are not permanent destinies, not for
Ya’akov, not for the Israelites in Egypit, and not for us.

Shabbat shalom,

RNJL

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Vayeitze: Discernment and Rebuke

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitze, Yaakov is on the run from his brother, who is quite
understandably angry with him. He goes back to his mother’s hometown,
in search of his uncle Lavan and his family. Yaakov ends up marrying
two of Lavan’s daughters, but before he even meets them, he has an
interesting encounter at the well outside of town:

“Yaakov resumed his journey and came to the land of the Easterners.
There before his eyes was a well in the open. Three flocks of sheep
were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that
well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large. When all the
flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled from the mouth
of the well and the sheep watered. . .

Yaakov said to them, ‘My friends, where are you from?’ And they said,
‘We are from Haran.’ He said to them, ‘Do you know Lavan the son of
Nahor?’ . . . [Yaakov] said, ‘It is still broad daylight, too early to
round up the animals; water the flock and take them to pasture.’ But
they said, ‘We cannot, until all the flocks are rounded up; then the
stone is rolled off the mouth of the well and we water the sheep.’
(Bereshit/ Genesis 29:1-9, edited)

Rashi, along with other commentators, interprets this interaction as a
gentle rebuke by Yaakov to the herders he sees resting by the well.
Here’s Rashi’s comment:

“Since he saw them lying down, he thought that they wished to gather
the livestock to return home and that they would no longer graze. So
he said to them, ‘It’s still day’ i.e., if you have been hired for
the day, you have not completed the day’s work, and if the animals are
yours, it is, nevertheless, not the time to take in the livestock.”

Now, as it turns out, Yaakov didn’t understand what he saw- he thought
the herders were slacking off, when really, they were waiting for
enough men to gather to roll the big stone off the top of the well,
which Yaakov then does for them. One could also reasonably point out
that it’s none of Yaakov’s business whether or not the shepherds are
resting or working- he didn’t hire them. Yet Rashi implies- and others
say explicitly- that Yaakov was justified in rebuking the shepherds,
because it appeared to him that they weren’t doing the job for which
they were hired.

It’s a gentle chiding, to be sure; Yaakov prefaces his questions by
calling the men “achai,” literally “my brothers.” Some commentators
see Yaakov’s comment as a fulfillment of the mitzvah of “tochecha,” or
“rebuke,” which the Chafetz Chaim explains as a universal obligation
to point out to others when they are violating a Torah law. (Cf.
Vayikra/Leviticus 19:17) The Chafetz Chaim goes on to say that one
must never shame another person or humiliate them, and one is not
obligated to keep saying anything past the point at which one’s words
are rejected. Furthermore, as Yaakov’s interaction with the herders
illustrates, we often don’t have all the facts, and hasty judgments
could lead to highly problematic interactions.

Yet will all those caveats- and many more in the commentary on this
mitzvah- it’s still true that Judaism teaches the ethical duty to
speak up when one sees others engaged in wrongdoing. We have to be
careful, we have to be gentle, we have to be thoughtful, we have to be
humble, but we must also have the courage of our convictions. Yaakov
was wrong when he thought the shepherds were cheating their employer-
but imagine a world in which honest employees of Enron or Worldcom
spoke out when they saw violations of corporate ethics.

Imagine a world in which honest people routinely spoke out when they
saw dishonesty or cruelty, and you understand why this mitzvah is
crucial to religious ethics. “Tochecha,” or “rebuke,” isn’t about
setting oneself up as the judge of others- it’s about having the
courage to speak when the situation calls for it. It’s a very tough
mitzvah to do – in fact, there are some who say it’s almost
impossible- but it’s also a mitzvah which teaches us about moral
courage, which the world needs now more than ever.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vayeitze: The “I” Who Didn’t Know

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

Greetings! In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitze, our ancestor Yaakov
is on the run from his (quite understandably) angry brother, and
headed toward his uncle’s home in Haran, a place connected to both
Rivka and Avraham. While on the way, Yaakov lays down in the desert
and has his famous dream of a ladder going up to the heavens and
angels going up and down the ladder. He awakes and admits his surprise:

“Yaakov awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is present in
this place, and I did not know it!’ ” ( Bereshit/Genesis 28:16)

The last phrase of this verse is difficult to translate elegantly, but
one could also read it as: “There is God in this place, and I, I did
not know”. The doubling of “I” comes from the fact that in Hebrew, a
verb is often enough to indicate who is speaking- so “anochi lo
yadati” is a bit redundant, because “anochi” means “I” (like “ani” in
modern Hebrew) and “lo yadati” means “I didn’t know.” So, of course,
when a verse is unusual, it attracts a great deal of attention from
the commentators, who in this case, derive a profound lesson from the
addition of “anochi” to “lo yadati,” a lesson about the nature of
spirituality itself.

In several Hassidic commentaries, the extra “I” of “anochi” is equated
with Yaakov’s ego or sense of selfhood. Thus, during a time when he is
on the run, presumably in fear and regret after stealing his brother’s
birthright and blessing, all alone in the desert, he is open to a
profound sense of the Divine Presence precisely because his ego, his
conception of “Yaakov,” has been cracked apart and opened up. So when
the text says “I, I did not know,” the Hassidic masters see this as
teaching that the “I” part of Yaakov- his pride, ego and illusion of
wholeness- is what “didn’t know” that God was in this (and every)
place, able to reach through to a deeper part of him and send him
further along his life’s journey.

This teaching is very real to me, both in my personal and rabbinic
experience. It is precisely the times when I’ve had no choice but to
let go of previous conceptions of myself- when I had no alternative
but spiritual openness- that my ability to move forward into new
journeys has been strengthened and renewed. Yaakov’s previous
relationships, with his brother and father, were broken and shattered-
but new relationships, with wives and children, were just around the
corner, if he could sense the possibility of purpose and meaning in
life, despite its pain and trouble. That’s where God comes in- to give
us a broader vision than our solipsistic sense of self, stuck in its
pain and habits, may allow.

Faith, in this sense, is not about what you believe with your
intellect, but about one’s ability to grow despite the natural human
fear of change. It’s the ego, our “comfort zone” of self-conception,
which resists change and often wants to keep things just as they are-
and that part of ourselves is what “doesn’t know” and holds us back
from the growth in awareness, compassion, and service which is every
person’s spiritual potential.

Yaakov, like all of us, has moments of profound change in his life,
and one such liminal moment is when he realizes that the Yaakov who
left Beersheva- the Yaakov who deceived his father and humiliated his
brother- is no longer somebody he can be. “I, I did not know”- I, the
person I was, is now seen as a barrier to the person I can be if I
journey with awareness of my spiritual potential. Such a realization
is painful, but part of every seeker’s journey.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vayetzei: You Are the Gate Of Heaven

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayetzei

Shabbat Snow-lom! It’s looking cold and wet outside, so let’s all
imagine ourselves out in the fields of the ancient Middle East, where
our ancestor Yaakov found himself sleeping alone one night after
leaving his parent’s home. At the end of the last parsha, Yaakov is on
the run, fearing (not without reason) that his brother Esav will kill
him for stealing the blessing of the first born.

On the way to Haran- his uncle’s hometown- Yaacov has a wondrous
dream-vision (more about that in a bit.) He gets to Haran, falls in
love with his cousin Rakhel, but gets tricked into marrying her older
sister Leah first. Yaakov works for his uncle Lavan for many years,
and has 13 children with four different women. (!) He eventually
decides to go back to his own homeland (Caanan/ Israel), and has to do
some tricky negotiations with his father-in-law to be permitted to
leave with his wives, concubines, children, and much property.

Many of you may remember the phrase “Jacob’s ladder,” which refers to
the dream-vision Yaakov had on the way to Haran, right at the
beginning of this week’s parsha, Vayetzei. While travelling, Yaakov
puts a stone under his head for a pillow, and dreams of a ladder, or
stairway, to heaven, with angels going up and down. God promises to
make his descendants into a great nation, and promises to bring him
back to the land of Israel.

Yaakov awakes from his dream, and realized that he’s experienced the
Divine Presence:

” And Yaakov awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord
is in this place, and I did not know. And he was frightened, and he
said, `How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of
God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ ” (Bereshit/ Genesis) 28:16-17

Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leader of German Orthodoxy in the late
1800’s, asks an interesting question: why was Yaakov afraid? Think
about it: if you received a Divine vision promising great things,
wouldn’t you probably be happy and secure?

Hirsch’s answer is so beautiful I’ve written it out in full:

“What made him afraid? Probably nothing else, but the consciousness of
this new idea that and the demands that it brings with it, that man,
frail man, is to be, should be, the bearer of the Glory of God on
Earth, could have brought this overwhelming feeling of fear in him:
how awesome is this place. What has been shown me here is none other
than the `house of God,’ and that, at the same time, is `the gate to
Heaven.’ The House of God, a house into which God moves, that a human
life can be, and should be, such that when the ascending angels seek
God in heaven, they have to come down to find Him amongst mankind. And
every such house, in which such a life is lived, is the `gate of
Heaven,’ a gate through which we come to God, accordingly, the most
consummate union of the earthly with the Heavenly.” (S.R.Hirsch,
“Commentary on the Torah,” Judaic Press.)

Hirsch’s point, as I understand it, is both simple and profound: that
Yaakov’s fear came from understanding that the place where he had the
vision is not the “House of God” and the “Gate of Heaven,” but he,
himself, Yaakov, is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven! Yaakov is
afraid because he realizes he’s going to have to live in a different
way, a way which makes the Divine Presence manifest here on Earth.
It’s not going to be simple or quick (it’s 20 years before Yaakov
makes peace with his brother), and it’s going to mean moving out of
his “comfort zone” of ethics and behavior.

According to this reading, what frightens Yaakov is the realization
that spiritual transformation involves unpredictable change- in his
case, so much so that he gets a whole new name, but not until after
much struggle with self and others. Yaakov’s vision was that “God was
in this place”- not in the patch of earth where he lay sleeping, but
in the spark of Spirit that each of us bears within. Thus, the story
is not about stumbling upon some physical place which bears unique
holiness: the story is about coming to a certain place in life’s
spiritual journey, a place where great growth and new perspectives
come bursting through, bringing both great hope and great discomfort
with life as it’s been lived so far.

We, “frail humankind,” are the House of God and the Gate of Heaven, if
only we choose to be. It may be frightening at times, but what destiny
worth achieving wouldn’t bring us into the unknown? God was in that
Place, and Yaakov didn’t know it; the Divine Presence rests within
each of us, and our challenge is to become more conscious of it, every
day.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, you can find the text of the parsha, and additional
commentary, here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

PPS- I just bought the 5 volume English translation of S. R. Hirsch’s
Torah commentaries, so I suspect you’ll be hearing more from him in
the months to come. If you’re interested, here’s a short biography:

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Hirsch.html

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Vayeitze: Asking for the Basics

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

This week the Torah turns its attention to next generation in the
line of Avraham, and before the portion is finished, Ya’akov his
two wives, two concubines, and many children (talk about a
blended family!) have become secure and prosperous. However,
at the beginning of the parsha, things aren’t looking so good for
Ya’akov: he’s on the run from his brother, he’s all alone in the
wilderness, and he has nothing but rocks for a pillow. In his
lonely sleep, he has a life-changing and awesome dream of a
ladder (or stairway) to the heavens, and in this vision, God
reaffirms to Ya’akov the covenant with Avraham, his grandfather.
In response, Ya’akov makes his own commitment to the God of
his ancestors:

“And Ya’akov uttered a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and
will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will
give me bread to eat and a garment to wear; and if I return in
peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my God; then
this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a
house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe
to You.’ ” (Genesis 28:20-21)

Much has been written about Ya’akov’s vow, and a full exploration
will await another time. (See footnote.) For today, let’s focus on
the relatively simple requests that Ya’akov makes of God: bread,
clothing, and returning to his father’s house in peace. The Me’am
Loez, a Sephardic commentary, notes that Ya’akov asks for basic
needs, and relates this to a more general observation that
spiritually mature people are less likely to focus on material
desires and better able to feel gratitude for the simplest gifts of
life (i.e., like bread and basic clothing.)

We might even turn this insight around and say that an aspect of
religious or spiritual growth is precisely this ability to feel true
gratitude for “the basics.” Perhaps this is a turning point for
Ya’akov himself, who stole his brother’s birthright but now sees
that much less than a kingdom can make him grateful to God.

So far, so good. Yet there’s another part of Ya’akov’s request,
which is to “return in peace to my father’s house.” In its simplest
meaning (or pshat, in Hebrew), it seems that Ya’akov is asking
for physical safety, and this would fit in with the idea that he’s
asking God for the essentials of life: food, clothing, physical
security.

Let’s remember, however, that Ya’akov is on the run from his
brother, from whom he stole the birthright, after deceiving his
father – in other words, his father’s house is not a place of peace,
precisely because Ya’akov himself engaged in actions (in
cooperation with his mother) to break apart the family! So maybe,
on a deeper level, Ya’akov is asking for more than physical safety
along the way, but also for the power to find reconciliation and
the reestablishment of family bonds.

Human beings need bread and clothing, but we also need
relationships with loved ones. Ya’akov does, in fact, ask God for
the true essentials of human life, but these are not only physical
things: they are also emotional and spiritual. To be full human
beingse we need the spiritual gifts of love, relationship, and
reconciliation as much as we need bread and clothing – and this
realization is crucial not only for our forefather Ya’akov, but for
us
as well.

Footnote: You can look here for more that I’ve written about the
topic of Ya’akov’s vow: http://tinyurl.com/6tkd2. )

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Vayeitzei 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitzei

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaYetze (Gen. 28:10-32:3)

OVERVIEW

Yaakov begins a long exile from his home and family, yet right at the beginning of this journey, God appears to him in the vision of the ladder and promises him protection, descendants, and blessing. Yaakov then meets and falls in love with Rahel, daughter of Lavan, his mother’s brother. Lavan, however, substitutes her sister Leah for Rahel on their wedding night, and Yaakov agrees to work many more years for Rahel as well. After some dramatic uncertainty, the sisters have children and their servants also bear children- Yaakov’s sons will be the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel. Yaakov plans his escape from Lavan, but eventually they part in peace.

IN FOCUS

“Lavan replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.” (Genesis 29:26-27)

PSHAT

Yaakov, the trickster, who deceived his father at the urging of his mother, is now deceived by his mother’s brother, Lavan. Yaakov wanted to marry Lavan’s younger daughter, Rahel, but Lavan put Leah, the older daughter, into the marriage tent instead. When Yaakov indignantly protests the next morning, Lavan appeals to local custom (perhaps giving Yaakov a verbal jab over the treatment of his older brother Esav at the same time), and offers to let Yaakov marry Rahel as well, after the week of feasting for the first marriage is concluded.

DRASH

Yaakov, our most morally complex ancestor in Genesis, tends, not surprisingly, to be surrounded by other, equally complex figures. His brother Esav is comes across as both shortsighted and tragic, though the rabbis will later portray him as wicked and corrupting. Similarly, his uncle Lavan seems like a shady character when making deals with Yaakov, yet he also seems very caring and protective of his daughters, especially at the end of the parashah, when he has to let them go. His switching of Leah for Rahel might have been solely motivated by a desire to protect Leah’s honour and feelings, or it might have been a way to bind Yaakov to his family for another seven years, or more likely, a combination of these and other motives.

Surprisingly, although the ancient rabbis disliked Lavan as much as they disliked Esav, they were willing to learn from his example when they thought he was acting properly. The rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud, in the tractate Moed Katan (Jerusalem Talmud, quoted in Y. Nachshoni’s book of essays on Torah interpretation), derive an important principle from Lavan’s insistence that the “bridal week” for Leah be finished before Yaakov could also marry Rahel . They called this idea ein ma’arbin simcha b’simcha, or “one does not mix one happy occasion with another,” which basically means that one does not celebrate two happy events at the same time. Some of the rabbis also learn this from the story of the dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8:65); King Shlomo [Solomon] doesn’t dedicate the Temple on the feast week itself, but waits and has a separate celebration.

In our day, the classic example of ein ma’arbin simcha b’simcha is the general reluctance to schedule a bar/bat mitzvah, or a wedding, on a major holiday. Even though the Torah is being read, so one could call up a bat mitzvah or have an aufruf (pre-wedding blessings at the Torah service), the tradition is concerned that we pay full attention to the special meaning of the day. If we had a big family gathering, with all the time and trouble that entails, we might not really celebrate the holiday itself properly. Another example, closely related to our passage, is the tradition of not marrying siblings on the same day. Again, the idea is that we would not be able to fully fulfill the commandment of “gladdening the bride and groom” if we had to do it for two siblings on the same day, not to mention any jealousy or rivalry they might experience.

One aspect of any spiritual path is learning to be fully present, fully aware of the meaning of the moment. The rabbis also taught ein osin mitzvot habilot habilot, or “do not do commandments tied up in a bundle.” [In other words, do one at a time.] In today’s world of multi-tasking and cell phones this is a challenging lesson to remember!

Whether celebrating, or mourning, or praying, or opening the heart with ritual, the idea is usually the same: focus on what’s happening right now, give it your full attention, and experience that moment as deeply as you can. There will never be another moment like the one that just passed, so don’t distract yourself by “mixing” too many things into it at once. Focus on the most important thing; the rest will come in its time, just as the week of celebrating for Leah was followed by the week of celebrating for Rahel, each in its own time.

(Thanks to R. Brad Artson for his help this week.)

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Vayeitze 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeitze

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
Yaakov begins a long exile from his home and family, yet right at the beginning of this journey, God appears to him in the vision of the ladder and promises him protection, descendants, and blessing. Yaakov then meets and falls in love with Rahel, daughter of Lavan, his mother’s brother. Lavan, however, substitutes her sister Leah for Rahel on their wedding night, and Yaakov agrees to work many more years for Rahel as well. The sisters have children and their servants also bear children- Yaakov’s sons will be the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel. Yaakov plans his escape from Lavan, but eventually they part in peace.

IN FOCUS
“Then Yaakov took a vow, saying: If God is with me, and guards me on this journey I’m taking [literally: on the way that I am walking], and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and return me to my father’s house in peace- Adonai will be God to me, and this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall be a place of God, and whatever You give to me, I will tithe to You.”
(Genesis 28:20-22)

PSHAT

Soon after leaving his home, fearful that his brother might kill him in revenge for stealing the birthright of the elder son, Yaakov arrives in Haran, lays down to sleep, and has a most extraordinary experience. He has a vision of a ladder between earth and Heaven, with angels ascending and descending on it. God speaks to him, promising him the Land, descendants, protection, and the blessing which God promised to Avraham and Yitzhak. Yaakov awakes, realizing the Divine nature of his vision, and makes a vow that if God will indeed keep God’s promise, then Yaakov will be devoted in return.

DRASH
Many of the classic Torah commentators struggle and stretch to deal with a fundamental problem in Yaakov’s vow: its apparent conditionality. I have tried to translated these verses in such a way that the ambiguity comes through in English, but still, Yaakov seems to be saying: if God will give me protection and food and clothing, then I will be loyal to God, letting Adonai be my God, so to speak. No wonder the medieval commentators had a hard time with this: could our spiritual ancestor, one of the Patriarchs of the Torah, really be so fickle, almost crass, as to condition his spiritual commitment on bread and clothing? What kind of loyalty is that, especially after such a powerful vision, in which he received the Heavenly promise of great blessings? Could Yaakov really be saying that if he did not get his food and clothing in short order, he would not accept Adonai as his God?

Faced with this problem, many of the commentators read Yaakov’s statement not as a conditonal vow, but as a prayer, something like: “Let God be with me, and protect me, and give me food to eat and clothing to wear.” The 19th century Polish commentator known as the Netziv (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin), in his Torah commentary called Ha’emek Davar,* explains the next part of Yaakov’s declaration: “and Adonai will be God to me” as connected to the following clause, that he be returned to the land of Israel in peace. The Netziv reads all three verses as one prayer: that God should give him protection, food, clothing, and return him to his father’s house in peace.

For the Netziv, Yaakov’s prayer to be returned home is central because it is in the Land of Israel, which was understood as a place of protection and heightened spirituality. (Cf. Ramban on these verses.) However, reading all three verses as one prayer doesn’t explain the phrase: “and Adonai will be God to me.” To solve this part of the puzzle, the Netziv explains that this phrase is not conditional, but in fact a great declaration of faith: Yaakov is saying that even in the Land of Israel, where Divine blessings and protection are more easily perceived, he will not rely on physical strength, but will remember to have faith in the Divine.

This is a fascinating interpretation, suggesting that Yaakov knew that receiving a great blessing is its own kind of test of faith. As I suggested last week as well, it’s a common human character trait to take good things for granted, even things for which we’ve worked and prayed long hours. A little child promises to take the dog for a walk every day, but soon has to be reminded over and over again to take care of her pet. A couple gets married out of a great love for each other, but soon in the grind of daily living, honest communication and real listening just sort of get forgotten. A rabbi graduates rabbinical school with great ideals for Torah learning and personal observance, and then in the rush of weekly activities, there just doesn’t seem to be the time to pick up a book (trust me on this one!).

You get the idea here: Yaakov may have wanted more than anything to get back to the Promised Land, but the midrash suggests he knew that the real challenge wasn’t getting there, it was doing the work of fulfilling his potential there. The Land may offer great physical and spiritual blessings, but if Yaakov “slacked off” and took them for granted, he would be no better off than before. It’s the same for us: we might hope and pray for a relationship, a new job, children, a happy home, and may other wonderful things, but the hard part is realizing what you’ve been blessed with and continuing your commitment to growth, gratitude, and the hard work of sustained relationships, whether with God or a person. We make all kinds of prayers and promises to God in hard times; the trick is to remember to “let the Holy One be a God to you” when you’ve reached the place you’ve been yearning to be.

*quoted in HaGaot B’Parshiot HaTorah, by Yehudah Nachshoni, a book of essays in Hebrew that compare and contrast different perspectives on difficult passages in the Torah.

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