Finding Home – Parshat Vayetzei 5782

I love finding family. For a bit of background, I grew up around lots of cousins on my mom’s side, including first, second, and third cousins. You could practically call it an entire family tree. We were so close that I never really distinguished between degrees of cousinhood; we were just cousins.

On my dad’s side, however, there were many cousins I never met. That’s because they were from a generation before me, since I have no first cousins on his side. This makes it all the more surprising and exciting that three times since I moved to Portland, I’ve had opportunities to connect with relatives. The first time happened when I accepted my position at Neveh Shalom. After the official announcement went out, I received an email from a cousin who lives nearby who was excited to hear I was coming “home.” (Hi, Ruby!) Then, a few years ago, I was officiating a wedding, and after the ceremony a guest came up to me and introduced herself as a cousin. She looked just like my sister, and we actually knew each other in passing when we were much younger. (Hi, Lindsey!). And most recently after our Covid-19 High Holiday services, I received an email from another cousin who just moved to Vancouver, WA and whose father actually delivered me when I was born. (Hi, Jeff!) That connection was made through watching our live streamed services. In each instance I was grateful for the moment of connection and the deep feelings of family bonds, despite reconnecting after a long time or for the very first time.

I’m not alone in this desire to be connected to family near and far. It’s actually expressed quite beautifully in this week’s Torah portion. Parshat Vayetzei begins with Jacob fleeing his home, on the run from his angry brother and the mess that has become of his family dynamic. Exhausted, he lies down and has this bizarre dream in which God comes and speaks to him. God gives Jacob marching orders, a legacy to hold and create, and a full sense of his mission in life. Much like his father Isaac, the journey is into the unknown. But unlike his grandfather, Abraham, Jacob finds family almost immediately. 

Jacob sees his cousin Rachel and once he sees her, he’s so overjoyed to recognize her, he embraces her with a kiss. While I didn’t kiss any of my cousins on the first meeting, I do relate to Jacob’s joy and jubilance at finding family in a new place when he’s feeling all alone. For Jacob, seeing Rachel was finding connection to his past and knowing that there was someone who was like him. That was enough for Jacob to feel at home, to feel safe after he’d run from his brother, and to feel like God was really with him.

When I’ve examined these verses with students, they’re usually quick to ask what it means in Jacob’s dream that God “will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Perhaps one of the best lessons we learn from this parshah is that feeling a sense of home, of family, is a powerful way of feeling God’s presence. As we enter the darker part of our year, may we be embraced by light and warmth and that comfort of home whenever possible.

Fully Dressed – Parshat Vayetzei 5781

Has anyone reminded you to make sure you’re wearing clean underwear? If you’re like me, you’ve had it drilled into you that no matter what, when you leave the house, always make sure you’re covered for any eventuality. If there’s an accident or an emergency, you want to be not only prepared, but presentable.

A few months ago, I had an experience that made me recall this advice and regret not heeding it. I was driving home from CNS after dropping off my tiny human for school. The sun was shining, the world was beautiful, and then another driver ran a stop sign and hit my car. My first instinct (after I made sure the other driver and I were both OK) was that it was very warm out, and I was dressed for a quick jaunt to CNS for dropoff before heading home to change. Instead, I spent two hours outside in the beating sun in running leggings and had to choose between a warm fleece that provided too much coverage or a tank top that didn’t provide enough coverage. While my car was filled with enough snacks (and crumbs) to feed me for months, I did not go out with enough clothes for every occasion.

This week, as we read our Torah, we’re reminded what we need to bring as we leave our homes. Parshat Vayetzei begins with Jacob on the run from his angry brother, fleeing his home and the mess that has become of his family dynamic. Exhausted, he lies down and has this crazy dream in which God comes and speaks to him. God gives Jacob marching orders, a legacy to hold and create, and a full sense of his mission in life. 

The question from this Parsah for me is, how are we supposed to go out into the world? How much emphasis and preparation should we put into being presentable at all times? In other words, what matters more: what’s underneath the surface or what people see? For so much of our lives we’ve been taught to look beyond the surface and not judge a book by its cover. But when you’re stressed, angry, or frustrated, you’re not putting your best foot forward, yet the surface level is all people see because they don’t look beneath. So when it comes down to it, is it more important to look prepared even if you’re not, or be emotionally prepared even if you don’t look it? 

I think what we’re supposed to take to heart from Parshat Vayetzei is that when we go out into the world, the best we can do is approach life as prepared as we can be with the information we have. We shouldn’t be completely internally or externally focused; rather, we should be willing to receive each moment and each individual as we encounter them. And hopefully they’re wearing underwear too.

Recurring Nightmare – Parshat Vayetzei 5780

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Lately I’ve had the same recurring dream. Do you remember those nightmares about showing up to school in your underwear or missing a test? It’s pretty much like that, except now my nightmare is about shul instead of school. I’m standing on the bima, giving a sermon I feel passionately about. I’m confidently speaking from the heart, when suddenly one congregant after another stands up and starts heckling me. This continues for a while until the whole congregation is booing, and then I’m escorted off the bima. You don’t need to be Freud to understand my anxiety in this dream (which is, thankfully, just a dream).

Parshat Vayetzei, which we read this week, is the beginning of some vivid dream sequences that lead us through the next few parts of our Torah cycle. The text picks up with Jacob on his journey away from his parents’ house to meet his cousin, Lavan, and the strange dreams and encounters he has with godly creatures along the way. He ends up falling in love with Rachel, works for her hand in marriage, but is tricked into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah. Fast forward a few more years of work, and the prize of having Rachel as his wife is realized. The text continues with the birth of Jacob’s large family and his journey away from his father-in-law Lavan to a new home. 

The dreams Jacob has on his journey are full of the emotions he’s experiencing. It’s partly the fear of being in the world alone, but also the hopeful faith that God was always there as a guiding force. While he’s asleep, Jacob’s subconscious is bringing up the memories of running from his brother and of the regret of being dishonest with his father. 

Sometimes our dreams can wake us up to our truest feelings, feelings we might be fearful to address in the waking world. Perhaps there’s a change we’re scared of making, but our dreams, which are out of our control, can present things in a new light. Jacob wakes from his dream, suddenly aware that God was with him, and that when he does the right thing he will have the community and safety he seeks. 

My own personal heckling dream recently returned the night before I was going to give two divrei Torah on topics I was passionate about. Perhaps those dreams were a manifestation of my fear of being vulnerable in front of the congregation. What if my passion wasn’t shared? What if it fell flat? But in having those dreams, I was able to better appreciate that vulnerability and realize that the things that make us less perfect also make us more human.

Does God Leave You? – Parshat Vayetzei 5779

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A year ago as I was teaching our 6th graders our “Tidbits of Torah” class, where we read a small section of each parshah in order to prepare for their b’nai mitzvah Torah portions, one of the verses we read elicited this question. Does God ever leave you?

The context for this question comes in chapter 28, verses 13-17:

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 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.”

Parshat Vayetzei begins with Jacob on the run from his angry brother, fleeing his home and the mess that has become of his family dynamic. Exhausted, he lies down and has this crazy dream in which God comes and speaks to him. God gives Jacob marching orders, a legacy to hold and create, and a full sense of his mission in life. We examined these verses that day in class, and the students quickly wondered what it meant that God “will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Does it mean that there are times in our lives when God is not with us? Does it mean that God’s promise to us covers both our past and our future, so God is of course always there? Do these verses mean that if our perceived destiny is fulfilled then it was God’s wishes? These were weighty questions coming from 11 and 12-year-olds.

We came to the general consensus that perhaps God is always with us, but is actively engaging in our lives only in those times when we need it most. Even the students who questioned the notion of God playing any role in our lives agreed that whether or not people believe in God, God might still believe in us and journey through life with us as a presence.

Personally, I have come to the conclusion that God is always present in my life in some way. Sometimes it feels like a blessing, sometimes more like a curse, but God’s love is always there and only leaves when my soul returns to its final resting place.

Now it’s your turn to answer: What does it mean to you that “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you?” The wonderful thing about learning together is that we often end up with more questions than answers, which simply means more exceptional learning opportunities!

We Have Awoken – Parshat Vayetzei 5778

 

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Something has awoken in us. In the past four weeks we’ve heard an outcry that was previously silenced. Those in positions of power are being held accountable for their actions, and victims who felt vulnerable and threatened are speaking out against their abusers. This is not to say that every instance of sexual misconduct is the same, or even that every instance happened exactly as reported. But one thing is for certain: the curtain is being pulled back, and a pervasive predatory culture is being exposed for what it is.

We’re not often shaken awake in such a deliberate way, but when something happens that rocks you to the core, either individually or societally, you take notice. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, we read about such a shock. Our forefather Jacob has an experience which, according to the text, literally shakes him. We begin with Jacob’s dream of the ladder while he’s on his way to meet his uncle, and continues with Jacob’s marriage to the older sister of the woman he thinks he is marrying. The rest of the parshah contains the birth of Jacob’s many children and Jacob and Lavan working out their father-in-law/son-in-law relationship.

There are actually several moments throughout the text in which Jacob has an encounter that changes or shakes him in some way. Specifically in chapter 28, verses 16-17, we read:

Jacob 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!”

It is so incredibly easy to fall into a trap of sameness, of status quo. We assume that things simply are the way they are, so we don’t try to change them or speak out against them. Occasionally, like Jacob, we need to be shaken awake. We need something to remove the blinders. This is true if we want to change a social attitude or if we want our relationship with God to go beyond just picking up a siddur or putting on a tallit. It is in those moments when we are most deeply shaken out of ourselves that we can actually make a change or even encounter the divine.