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.

Comfort Zone – Parshat Vayetzei 5777

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Each of our children has a soft fleecy lovey. The three-month-old isn’t quite old enough to fully appreciate its magical comforting powers, but it means quite a bit to his older sister. Her lovey is her regular bedtime companion. In addition, when my daughter is sad or scared, she’ll ask for her lovey. Or when she’s especially tired or grumpy, holding lovey to her face makes her calm and peaceful.

We also have very particular rules about lovey’s location to minimize the risk of losing this special item. Rather than attempt to transport lovey all over the place, some advanced parental preparation meant lovey was always where my daughter needed it. Comfort was never too far away.

In a certain way, this seemingly stationary – yet always available – nature is not unlike God’s presence in the Torah, especially for Jacob. This week we read from parshat Vayetzei, one of the turning points and most famous parts of our text. 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.

As Jacob runs away from his house, he has a dream. God appears to him. Jacob was likely frightened; after all, he was alone in an unknown place, in an unknown time, not sure of what would happen next. And in his moment of need, comfort arrives: “I am the Lord your God and I will be with you to protect you,” God says. Knowing from this point on he would never be alone, Jacob is able to move forward with confidence, understanding that there would always be a protector with him. In that moment, God was Jacob’s community. The place might have been new and different, but the comfort was familiar.

The need for protection doesn’t go away as we age; it is simply solved in different ways. The common thread is the comfort of consistency. It won’t always be a lovey. It may not always be God. But the knowledge that it’s not you alone against the world is one of the most valuable takeaways from our parshah and a core message of Judaism.

We Are The Dreamers – Parshat Vayeitzei 5776

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Some mornings I wake up confused as to whether the dream I just had was actually a dream or part of real life. There’s nothing more terrifying than waking up thinking you’ve flunked your high school final or you’ve missed a big deadline at work. On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes I wake up and wish that my dreams were true, that my father really did come back to see me or that magically my student loan debt was paid off. Our dreams let us peer into our deepest desires and fears.  

In the Torah too we learn there are dreamers who walk the tightrope between fantasy and reality. Jacob, Joseph, and Pharaoh all have vivid dreams that ultimately change the course of their lives. With each of these men, their dreams have an additional God-related element that moves them to make a change in their world.  

This week we read from parshat Vayeitzei, one of the turning points and most famous parts of our text. 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 after a few more years of work, and the prize of having Rachel as his wife is realized. The text continues with the expansion of Jacob’s large family and his journey away from his father-in-law Lavan to a new home.  

In this week’s parshah, Jacob is the dreamer. His dream brings God down to him on earth, and in his dream angels dance around him, surrounding him with warmth and love. Alone in the wilderness because he’s had to run away from his family after deceiving his father and brother, Jacob is in an unfamiliar and probably terrifying place. God comes to him in a dream and promises to always be there with him, that he is not alone. What a relief it must have been for Jacob to feel that divine presence, and at the same time, surely he must have questioned whether or not it was real.

Jacob wakes up makes a deal with God to confirm that his dream was more than just a dream. In chapter 28, verses 20-21 he says: “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God.” Jacob isn’t sure whether to trust his dreams or not, and his prayer is essentially “I’ll believe it when I see it.” He makes a promise to God, trying to will God’s guidance and presence to be true.  

This reassuring episode undoubtedly helps Jacob feel more closely connected to God, but did it change the course of his life? Ultimately, as his dream and bargaining tell us, the course of Jacob’s life is determined by his actions. Turning dreams into reality isn’t merely an act of God; it’s the combination of faith in God, faith in ourselves, and the active pursuit of the goals we wish to achieve.