Archive for the '1.07 VaYetzei' Category

In Our Kishkas: Jacob’s Ladder

In VaYetzei, this week’s Torah portion, we see a rich image of Jacob’s ladder. There we read:

And Jacob went out from Beer-sheva, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep. He dreamed and saw a ladder standing on the ground and its top reached up toward heaven. God’s angels were ascending and descending on it (Genesis 28:10-12)

Jacob’s Dream by William Blake (c. 1805, British Museum, London)

What are we to make of this image? What is the meaning of this ladder? The Midrash explains that this ladder represented the future empires that would rule the world (Pirkei D’rebbi Eliezer ch. 35) In many ways this is seeing the ladder through the lens of “Ma’aseh Avot Siman L’Banim- Everything that happened to the patriarchs is an indication for their children( Bereishit Rabba 40:6) Jacob was a sleep during the comings and goings of all of our collective diaspora’s. ( More on this sleep)

On another level I am intrigued to think about Jacob’s Ladder in the context that it itself might be indicative for later generations. I was thinking about it in the context of this great article on epigenetics I read in the Guardian. The article reported in a study by Rachel Yehuda that showed

Genetic changes stemming from the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors are capable of being passed on to their children, the clearest sign yet that one person’s life experience can affect subsequent generations. (The Guardian)

Jacob was running for his life, what if that trauma has been communicated to us his descendants through our genes? In this sense, things that happened to our ancestors actually indicate things for us their children. It really gives new meaning to the image of Jacob’s Ladder itself looks like the  double helix  ladder of  atoms that make up our DNA. Image result for DNA

While we are often depicted as a religion it is clear that we are also a people; it is in our very kishkas.

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Burning Ladder: Alicia Keys and Yaakov

We read in Vayetzeh, this week’s Torah portion, Yaakov dreamed a dream about a ladder. There we read:

And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! ( Genesis 28:12)

As Yaakov was leaving Israel to go into Diaspora he had this vision. We need to be idealistic and have our head above the limiting details of life, but we always need to have our feet firmly rooted in the ground. As important as any of the ideas we might talk with you about are the actions that we model. While I hope to share with my children my ideas and ideals, I realize that they will have your own. So I hope when they read this years from now they have seen my commitment to a set of values. I am worried for my children. The world in which they are growing up in much harsher than mine. What will become of this world emblazoned  by terror?

With the image of  Yaakov’s dream on my mind  I got to thinking about  Girl on Fire by Alicia Keys.

There she sings:

She got both feet on the ground
And she’s burning it down
Oh, she got her head in the clouds
And she’s not backing down

What does it mean to have Yaakov’s dream in the 21st Century which seems to be burning up around us? What kind foundation can I provide my children to ensure they maintain a dream and moral imagination needed to make the world what it might become?

 

Between Brothers

In VaYishlach, the Torah portion two week’s ago, Yakov is preparing to reconnect and to reconcile with his estranged brother Esav. Here we read about the mysterious encounter between Yakov and the angel. We read that:

And he ( Yakov) took them, and sent them over the stream, and sent over that which he had. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. ( Genesis 32: 24-25)

This is clearly am important moment. This is when Yakov and our whole nation become Yisrael. But, why did Yakov return over the Yabuk? On this, Rashi quotes the Talmud:

And Yakov was left alone. Said Rabbi Eleazar: He remained behind for the sake of some small jars. Hence [it is learned] that to the righteous their money is dearer than their body; and why is this? Because they do not stretch out their hands to robbery.(Hullin 91a)

Why would Yakov risk so much for these little jars? What was in these jars? If we go back to the beginning of his journey, we recall Yakov’s dream with the ladder. Upon waking up he consecrated that place with oil:

And Yakov woke out of his sleep, and he said: ‘Surely God is in this place; and I did not knew it.’ And he was afraid, and said: ‘How full of awe is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Yakov rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. ( Genesis 28: 16-18)

One reasonable reading is that these “small jars” had more of this consecrating oil in them. So why did he need them at this moment?

To understand this we need to understand Hanukkah. On its surfaces Hanukkah is a simple holidays. We see the themes of light breaking through the darkness, a small group banding together to beat a much stronger force, and the power of having faith in community. But like everything else in Jewish life nothing is ever as simple as it seems. So let’s look deeper into the three miracles of Hanukkah. One miracle is that small group of zealots were able to beat the stronger forces and regain control of the Temple. Keeping Yakov’s dream in mind we should not forget that when recovering the Temple they also recovered the Even haShetiya– the foundational rock that was his pillow and was at the center of many of our stories ( see Dome of the Rock). When they recaptured the Temple they found on small jar of oil for the menorah in the Temple. The second miracle was that despite the fact that this small jar only had enough oil for one day it lasted for eight days. This story about the miraculous Hanukkah oil has allowed us to look past focusing solely on the military victory. This is important in that the war was not a black and white fight between the Jews and the Greeks. Rather, it was a civil war between a small group of religious zealots and a larger group of their Hellenized Jewish brethren. In my mind this is itself the third miracle of Hanukkah. Our ability to tell the story of the second miracle of the oil to overshadow the first miracle of a civil war. The story of the oil helped cover over the other story of the recovery of the Temple with its foundational rock.

This year is special in that Hanukkah shares the calender with Thanksgiving. On its surface they are similar in that they are both days of giving thanks. But what is Thanksgiving? It is traced to a poorly documented 1621 celebration at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts. We retell the story of the first settlers to America who found salvation when they reached another foundational rock- Plymouth Rock.

But is that the real story of Thanksgiving? On October 3rd 1863 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. There we read:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union…It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

Like the third miracle of Hanukah, Thanksgiving is not really a story about the Pilgrams, but rather the constitution of a ritual of reconciliation post-civil war. Both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving represent the re-creation of national mythologies for the sake of mending the wounds of fighting between brothers. We in camping appreciate the impact of a good story regardless of its being true. Camp in its essence is an artificially manufactured community built on rituals, traditions, and history that need not be based on fact. It is here in this miraculous fabricated narrative that we create enduring memories of brotherhood. So while the story might not be true, the community could not be any more real.

So now I return to Yakov. Why did he return to get the small jars of oil? Like the Rabbis take on Hanukkah and Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving, Yakov was getting the oil in preparation to reconcile with his brother Esav. The stories we tell are the foundational rocks of our culture. The true miracle of our holidays is the oil that helps us rewrite those stories to make peace between brothers. Have a very meaningful Thanksgivukkah. Happy holidays.

For All Those Years

In Vayetei, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Yakov’s escape to Haran. Last week he stole the birthright and the blessing from Esav and now he wants to evade Esav’s wrath.  There in Haran he falls in love with Rachel. Lavan convincing him to work for 7 years for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Lavan dupes Yakov into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah instead. When confronted for deceiving Yakov, Lavan replies, “It is not so done in our place, to give the younger before the first-born” ( Genesis 29:26). Many questions arise from this situation. I wanted to discuss two now. How in the world did Yakov not realize that he was sleeping with Leah and not Rachel? What did Lavan mean by his response to Yakov?

On the first question I refer us back to Toldot, last week’s Torah portion. There we read of Rivka’s deception of Yitzhak. There the blind Yitzhak asks Esav for some food. There we read:

Now therefore take, I pray of you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison; and make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die.’ ( Genesis 27: 3-4)

Rivka overhears this plan and tells Yakov to intervene and to follow her plan. There we read:

Go now to the flock, and fetch me from two good kids of the goats from there; and I will make them savory food for your father, such as he loves; and you shall bring it to your father, that he may eat, so that he may bless you before his death.’ ( Genesis 27: 9-10)

At the core of this deception is the issue of perception. ( I realize that I am reading this differently then I did last week.) Yitzhak is blind, but that does not mean that we cannot taste. So how did this deception work? How might someone mistake goat for venison? Either Yitzhak is just not that perceptive or Rivka has been serving him goat meat for years and telling him it is venison.

In either case we might have some answers to our questions. Maybe Yakov like Yitzhak is just not that perceptive. While that is not that satisfying, it is interesting to realize how much Yakov is like Yitzhak.  This leaves us with the second question. What did Lavan mean?

It is hard as the reader not to read it as sarcastic. So we would read Lavan’s reply as, “It is not so done in our place as compared to your place, to give the younger before the first-born as you stole the birthright and blessing from your older brother Esav.”  But we the readers of the Torah know what Yakov did, but how would Lavan have known of Yakov’s decption of Esav and Yitzhak? It is possible that Lavan does not know anything of Yakov’s misdeeds. Maybe he is referring in a back-handed way to Rivka and her ways. She did grow up there with him in Haran. Maybe Rivka like Lavan are tricksters. For all of those years maybe Rivka was deceiving Yitzhak serving him goat and claiming it was venison. In this way Lavan is claiming that Yakov is no different from Rivka who is no different from himself.  As the Roman Philospher  Marcus Tullius Cicero said, ” It is the peculiar quality of a fool to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own”. We know that Lavan is a fool, but what is Yakov? It takes Yakov much of his life to realizing his similarities to both the positive and negative qualities of his parents. Like many of us, Yakov spends his whole life reconciling his identities. In this process of wrestling with our various identities we all become Yisrael.

A Note on Israel for Our Children

I am blessed with a full life. I spend all of my time parenting, partnering,working, and learning. Recently I have found that with every spare moment I am trying to follow the news of what is going on in Israel. And if I get a brief moment to reflect I just cry thinking about what is going on in Israel. It is the 21st Century, why must we still fight to exist?

Earlier tonight Adina and I took our children out to join us at a community wide event in support of Israel. We could have left the children with Maria, our Au Pair, and just gone by ourselves. We realized that despite it being past their bedtime it was important for our children to join us. We want them to value Israel in their lives as we do in our lives. It was great to see the room packed with people in support of Israel. But I realize that at the ages of eight, six and three this might be a bit too much to ask for at this time. I remind myself that this is the very reason that I started writing this entire blog in the first place over threes ago. I hope that years from now you ( Yadid , Yishama, and Emunah) look back and read this blog and are able to connect all of the dots of our parenting choices over the years. I can admit that I often daydream about the your future lives. What do I see emerging in each of you, our children, and might that be a clue of what is to come. I am curious which if and of you will choose to live in Israel. There is a big part of me that would love to follow you.

As we read in Vayetzeh, this week’s Torah portion, Yaakov dreamed a dream about a ladder. There we read:

And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! ( Genesis 28:12)

As Yaakov was leaving Israel to go into Diaspora he had this vision. We need to be idealistic and have our head above the limiting details of life, but we always need to have our feet firmly rooted in the ground. As important as any of the ideas we might talk with you about are the actions that we model. While I hope to share with you my ideas and ideals, I realize that you will have your own. So I hope when you read this years from now you have seen our commitment to Israel in our words as well as our actions. On the way to the event tonight Yadid said, ” I was born in New York, I live in White Plains, but Israel is home.” Obviously that is a well rehearsed line in our home, but it is also important that it is not just something we say. It is important that we make sure that our ideals are founded on our actions. For a second there was a hint that Yadid was starting to get the point. Who knows? Maybe he will be reading this blog post from Israel?

Our thoughts, prayers, and actions are for the people of Israel in the land of Israel. May we see a lasting peace as soon as possible for all of our children.

The Long Kiss

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzeh, we read about Jacob’s enduring love and commitment to marry Rachel.  there we read, “And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept.” ( Genesis 29:11) Jacob is motivated by this love to work for seven years for Lavan. Finally, Jacob has earned her hand in marriage and Lavan pulls the switch.  Instead, Jacob marries Rachel’s older sister Leah. His love for Rachel persists and he has to work another seven years in order to marry the love of his life Rachel. Fourteen years in the making…that was some commitment. It is hard for me to understand Lavan’s work proposal, let alone why Jacob took it. I doubt that many of us could endure for that long.

When I used to work at Hillel the number fourteen is a very important. My goal was and in many ways is still to partner with students to help them make enduring commitments that are personally meaningful, universally relevant and distinctively Jewish.  How can we ensure that these commitments will endure? This is complicated by the fact that the institutions of Jewish life are largely not relevant to students until they find their life partner and start to settle down. Realizing that we are living in a post “Sex in the City “ culture – it dawned on me that most of the students will not get married for on average 10 years from when they graduate. That is scary. We have four years with our students to help them think about how to go it alone for the following ten years. This is what I called for a “ fourteen year plan.” I am confident that the synagogues will help us endure after that point, but first we need to succeed in our fourteen year plan.

I have my theories as to why we have organized our communities in past in ways that do not speak of our current success, but for now I just want to make something that works for the future. We desperately need to pour resources into programs that deal with these fourteen years. Hillel’s need to be working with this in mind. Seeing that some of our best and brightest in this age cohort are working at camp, they too need to give some serious thought to how they will contribute to the fourteen year plan. It is not enough for  camp and Hillel to say we do “young alumni development” and only mean the euphemism of raising money. Long before we will get any monetary support from these young people we need to help them see their way through this fourteen year period of their lives.

While we should hope that the descendents of Jacob have his enduring commitment, we should not bank on it for fourteen years. These peak experiences at camp, on campus, in Israel, or on Birthright are very important, but not enough.  I have no doubt that many will have left by then with only the memory of a kiss. We have to plan for a longer kiss.

Revealing Food and Clothes

On the heels of last week’s Torah portion in which Jacob steals the birthright and the blessing from his brother Esav, this week’s Torah portion begins with Jacob running away from Esav. Just before Jacob leaves the land of Canaan he makes a vow to God, saying:

If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to wear,  so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God (Genesis 28:20-21)

His vow seems to be theologically charged with the possibility that God’s existence is contingent on God providing for Jacob. Some of the words in the vow seem to be superfluous. Of course food is to be eaten and clothing is to be worn, why does Jacob ask for “bread to eat, and clothing to wear”? It was Jacob himself who used food to get the birthright from Esav and food and clothing to deceive his father and get the blessing. How can Jacob ever look at food and clothing the same way again?

Even though it seems that the deception changed Jacob as a person, it never made him suspect that people would try to deceive him the same way in the future. Sure enough in this week’s Torah portion Jacob gets hoodwinked into marrying a cloaked Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. He then gets deceived by his sons who bring their father Joseph’s clothes with blood on them to support their claim that their brother Joseph was killed. Finally, Jacob will send his sons down to Egypt to get food and there they will all get deceived by Joseph. Ironically, despite Jacob’s claim that food and clothing should be used for their normal use, his life is marked by their use for deception.

If we look at the vow that Jacob makes, in this light, we see that the words are not superfluous and he really wanted God to let him forget the sins of his youth. Surely Jacob’s teshuvah, return, is a lifetime in the making. As we read in Hallel, “The rock that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). We can try to run from our past, but one way or another it will catch up with us. Just as in Jacob’s vow, the true revelation of God is contingent upon the true revelation of self.


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