Today is September 23, 2019 -
This week’s Parsha: Vayetse – the 7th weekly Torah portion in the annual Jewish cycle of Torah reading.
This week’s parsha is about Jacob and begins with the words, “vayetze ya yakov,” meaning Jacob departed. Jacob left Bersheba and set out for Charan. This is a very rich and complex parsha which has been discussed, dissected and debated by rabbinical experts for eons. Starting with: why really, did Jacob leave – and was it true that GOD would bring him back as was promised? If so, why and when?
The Rabbis debate why Jacob left. We read that Jacob had “stolen” the birthright of his older twin Esau, so was this a banishment? Some commentators say his mother sent him away and used the excuse that she didn’t want him to marry a Caananite woman. But, was she sending him away to save him from some punishment? By contrast, commentator Rabbi Warhaftig says that Jacob left his home to honor the wishes of his father, and out of fear of his brother Esau, who might kill him for the “stealing” of said birthright. So, perhaps Jacob had to leave Bersheba in order to honor the wishes of both his parents.
According to the first great Talmudic commentator Rashi: “When a righteous man leaves a place, it makes a mark.” We can debate the virtues of Jacob at the time he left, but his departure certainly made a mark on his parents, as it does with most parents when their children leave home. So, was it simply time for him to “leave the nest” and learn fly on his own?
Let me read you this portion: “Jacob left Bersheba and set out for Charan. He came upon a certain place and stopped for the night, for the sun had set. And the LORD was standing beside him and He said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’” So, Jacob left first as a fugitive, but then GOD spoke with him, gave him this blessing, and then every place was equally good for him.
That is fortuitous, because I think Jacob had work to do. On himself. I believe Jacob had to leave his family in order to mature into a more virtuous person, indeed a “mensch” before he could return home and fulfill the destiny that GOD described for him.
Psychologists tell us that the role of our parents is to give us both roots and wings. Jacob was rooted in his home, but when his parents pushed him out of the nest, he was then forced to grow the wings that would develop into his maturing. He had to grow, learn, suffer, and take risks on this journey. His character needed to be tested and refined, his personality molded and transformed, in order to return as a mature person. And boy was Jacob tested!
Do some of us need to leave in order to return? Do these life journeys of exploration and even rebellion, lead to discovery and a “return to roots? “ Are they one-way trips – or, can they include a round trip ticket, as GOD promised Jacob?
So Jacob needed to mature. What is maturity and how does it happen? According to the Torah and Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb., an ordained rabbi and psychotherapist, maturity can be associated with the wisdom gained from experience over time, with the development of an approach to life which is practical, informed, and wise.
Parshat Vayetze gives us the opportunity to read about the maturation of our patriarch Jacob through two big dreams. Jacob’s first dream envisions a ladder firmly rooted into the earth but extending heavenwards. This dream is a majestic glimpse of infinite possibilities, a grand imaginative symbol of the relations between man and God. But then, Jacob gets busy with mundane affairs, “scorched by heat all day, and freezing at night.” Jacob is busy with business, with profit, with material matters, dealing with deceit and disappointment at many turns.
Later Jacob dreams again, but this dream is much more practical. He see goats mating “with the flock which were streaked, speckled, and mottled.” This dream gives Jacob ideas on how to enhance the business of goat breeding and it ultimately works very well.
In this second dream, the angels tells Jacob it is now time to “leave this land and return to his native land.” It is time for him to become mature in one sense. It is time for him to reclaim his first dream and to do all he can to make that dream real. He learns that he must not surrender to just mundane dreams, abandoning old ideals. He learns he can return to dream of his youth. He also learns that not only can he go home again, he must go home again! A return to roots, I ask?
This is the eternal lesson for the Jewish people. According to Rabbi Weinreb, the dreams of the diaspora are apt to be mundane and shortsighted but the dreams of the Land of Israel are noble dreams, exalted dreams, and dreams which ultimately connect us to heaven. The Land of Israel is the land of our dreams and it is also our home and roots.
Jacob’s dream comes true. God told him he would return and that that place would be Israel. In 1948 the land of Israel declares itself a state and a home, a safe haven for all Jews seeking refuge. What is particularly interesting to me is that that was 70 years ago. Seventy, which has the number seven in it, is an important number to Jews, with both noble and mystical implications.
According to the Tanakh, “the days of our years are three score years and ten (70), or if reason of strength, four score years (80)… and it is speedily gone, and we fly away.” At 70, Benjamin Franklin was helping to draft the U.S. Constitution. Winston Churchill was 70 years old in 1945 when he led the United Kingdom to victory in World War II. Israel’s Golda Meir became prime minister of Israel at age 70.
So, at 70 years for a person, there should be some maturity, plus the opportunity to stop the daily rigors of work, start to focus on other opportunities and reclaim some of the dreams of our youth. It does not mean the departure of life, if we are lucky, but of the beginning of a new chapter in life. A re-rooting.
As with Israel, I was also born in 1948 and turn 70 this week. Jacob’s journey has reminded me a bit of mine. I didn’t physically leave home until after college, but I left earlier in other ways. In my youth, I didn’t like being Jewish. For me, it was all about what we could not do, eat, look like, enjoy. My mother was reared Orthodox in NYC and told us horrible stories of how difficult it was being Jewish there. As a child, her older sister, my tante Millie was hit on the back of her head with a hammer by a kid who called her a “dirty Jew.” I watched for the rest of her years how my aunt lived with blindness and a whole host of other maladies brought on by this attack. Who, I asked myself, would want to be Jewish?
We here in Reno Nevada (and before that in northern California) did not have much of a Jewish community. So I, as the eldest child in the family, felt singled out in school and in the neighborhood. We didn’t get to celebrate Christmas (even though one XMAS eve my sister and I put out stockings anyway, hoping for Santa. It didn’t happen.) It was embarrassing to be hauled out of school the first two days of Rosh Hashana and on Yom Kippur. We had to observe and fast. I do remember my mother making us stay in the car with her one Yom Kippur afternoon, however, as she listened to the World Series to see how her beloved Yankees were doing. We were sworn to secrecy. Not sure if it was about doing this on Yom Kippur or that she was rooting for the Yankees.
Vayetze – I departed. There are different ways to depart – geographically, as Jacob did, and as the Amish kids do, for example. They leave at age 18 for a year to explore the world of the Others. Some return and some do not. It’s an anguishing year for their frightened parents. Yet other youth depart by rebelling from their family’s beliefs, values, and customs. That’s more of how I departed. At the age of about 17, when I started college, I rejected my Jewish birthright, and left my parents’ world to explore the world outside Judaism. I can only imagine my parents’ fear and confusion, and I vividly remember huge, loud ugly family arguments. Who would choose to be Jewish, I would repeatedly ask myself. I was learning to grow wings and fly in other directions, I guess. Life went on.
Until recently, I worked very hard as a single mother, self-employed, trying to help my friends and community, taking care of my parents when that time came, and working through many mundane things. Important things. Busy things. But giving little time for self- or life-reflection or thoughts about religion or Judaism. Like with Jacob, my work was “scorched by day and freezing by night.” Well, not literally, but figuratively. And then things changed. I aged to the point where I could stop working at that level and could start to reap a bit of what I had sown, a maturation of a sort. What a blessing! Many people don’t get to live this long or get to this point of freedom and comfort. It is now a time for gratitude and for reflection. And maybe something else.
Perhaps it is a time to return home. A time to look back at the dreams of my youth and get them fulfilled. A time to achieve both levels of maturity, according to Rabbi Weinreb. A time to reclaim my birthright and return to certain things. We learn in Torah about the cycles of life, and when we leave some thing or some place, and then return, we are not the same as when we left. This cycle is more like a spiral which winds around an axis, like ivy growing up a tree. Its radius may be constant or not. Maybe our birthright acts like this axis, around which we can grow and change, leave and return. Kind of like a twisting, ascending ladder? On this journey around our axis, do we sometimes have to move backward in order to move forward? Going backwards might give us time to expand our knowledge and experiences, like Jacob did, and allow us to return more mature, experienced, and eager to get back to our core. Jacob knew he would be returning home. I did not.
So what does this parsha mean for so many Jews who have left their roots and given up their birthrights? Like for me, maybe it is never too late to get back to their core. Israel certainly is a symbol of such return – to a homeland and a way of life. But for us Jews not in Israel, right here in the U.S., it means we need to find other ways to reconnect to our Jewish cores and reclaim our birthrights. It is not easy being Jews here and with the growing anti-Semitism locally and worldwide, it might even be dangerous. But there is great beauty in reclaiming. It means there has been thought and study and certain decision-making not required of us when we were children. I think there is a place for Jews like me, maybe like you, who are trying to reclaim their birthright and forge a Jewish life which honors and respects our traditions and purpose. We were “given” the 10 Commandments but with that (and many other commandments) we were given many responsibilities.
We Jews deal with a number of mitzvahs. A mitzvah is both a commandment and a good deed. I love that dual meaning. I am suggesting that we as Jews work harder to be role models of civility and citizenship in this contentious world. We should honor our mitzvahs by being more mindful of what we think, do, speak and eat. We should be more grateful for all the beauty in our world and give thanks for all our gifts. We should be as generous as we can, in whatever ways we can, whether it be with money, time, or simply listening. According to the Dalai Lama, happiness comes from compassion, and when we are compassionate we turn from takers to givers. I also believe we should speak up against that which is evil, ugly, unfair, and cruel. We need to do mitzvahs by taking great care of our children, our friends and family, our communities and our environment. What a grand mark we would be making then! And lastly, we as Jews should be more accepting of other Jews and the variety of ways they choose to be Jews. When I was in Israel many years ago, I saw that Jews of all kinds live together, because they have a purpose that overrides their differences: survival. There are orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews and there are also holocaust-surviving Jews who are actually atheists. Yes they argue and disagree, but they still know who they are and what their core is. Like in Israel, we Jews here need to accept the differences among ourselves. Rabbi Fasman tells us that when it comes down to it, Jews around the world and across time are just one big family. One big dysfunctional family. We need to both endure and embrace those big family dinners with the crazy sister and the drunken uncle.
I have become very proud of my heritage – and very grateful I don’t actually have to convert! Simply because of my birthright, I was born Jewish, and aren’t I lucky. Yes, I get to be Jewish. I get to struggle with God, which is the definition of the word Israel, and something which I do regularly. I get to doubt the existence of God, wonder about what, if anything is His role and meaning. I get to yell at him when bad things happen to good people, but mostly I get to thank him regularly for all that is beautiful and magical in my life.
My gratitude is huge. I have many people to thank for putting up with me on my journey, some for many years, and some for a shorter time. My teachers and friends have been loving and patient and have successfully hidden their rolled eyes with some of my Hebrew struggles. Like Jacob, maybe I had to depart my roots, “fly the coop,” and build some wings in order to mature enough to come home. Maybe that is the responsibility for all of us Jews.
So, to mommy and daddy, I hope I have made you proud. May you rest in peace, knowing you did what you could to give me roots and wings – and please know: “Ahni babayit.” “Ich bin zu hoize.” I just might be home.