Comfort Zone – Parshat Vayetzei 5777


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

We Are The Dreamers

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.

I’ll be There for You or "The One Where…" – Parshat Vayetze 5773


The cast of Friends showed us a remarkable tales of friendship.  They were there for each other through breakups, weddings, unexpected pregnancies, crazy schemes, and failed careers.  Always with perfect comic timing, they helped one another quit bad habits and take on new adventures, knowing that no matter what happened, these six people would be there to support each other.
The premise of the show (and the catchy theme song) was that friends are always there for each other.  But in reality we all go through moments when we feel like no one will understand us and we are completely alone in the world.  In these times it’s easy to feel isolated, scared, or nervous.  However it manifests itself, the feeling of being helplessly alone is never good.  Our parshah this week is Vayetzei and details Jacob’s journey alone as he flees from his angry brother.  Jacob doesn’t know where this journey will take him or what will happen next.  Perhaps paralyzed by this feeling, Jacob rests for the night, and he has restless dreams about angels and God and then wakes up and proclaims this place holy.
But throughout it all, Jacob still feels alone; that is, until God finally chimes in directly.  In chapter 28, verse 15 Jacob finally learns that he is never going to be alone in the world, no matter how lost he feels.  God says “And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you.”  Jacob arises from his slumber with a new-found hope knowing that God is with him.  God is with us.  In moments of despair or complete isolation, God reminds us that He is there, with us, forever, wherever we go.
I first fell in love with this Torah verse in the fall of 2007, a time when I was deep in despair and feeling isolated.  My father had died that August, and my peer group of young adults did not yet really understand the grief associated with the death of a parent.  But God’s words brought me comfort: “I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have spoken to you.”  Not only was God with me, but in these words I knew that my father was with me.  Spiritually, he was with me because my journey was not complete.  After a while I was able to regain the trust that I would never be alone as long as I had my faith in God.
It’s not easy to feel connected to God in moments of isolation.  Jacob certainly did not lead an easy life, but from this moment on, his despair is tempered by the knowledge that no matter what, God is on his side.  In those moments where even having family or a group of friends who can work through any problem on a couch at a coffee shop doesn’t seem to be enough, know that you are not alone because God is with you.  In those moments when it feels like even God is distant, do what Jacob did.  Take a break, rest, and remember to see the holiness around you.
Additional lyrics were later added to the Friends theme song when it became a hit. One of the added lines is:
“No one could ever know me, no one could ever see me, since you’re the only one who knows what it’s like to be me.”
Do you think God somehow sympathizes with Jacob?  Since we’re created in God’s image, does God know what it’s like to be you?

Up, Up and Away – Parshat Vayeitzei 5772


What goes up must come down.  A lesson learned after my balloon floated away from me to the high ceiling of the synagogue.  I was reassured over and over again that eventually the balloon would shrivel as the helium escaped, and my balloon would come back to me, albeit slightly smaller.  It always made sense to me that before something could come down, it needed to go up, but this week’s parshah brings new understanding to this concept.
This week we read parshat Vayetzei, which in English means “and he went out.”  The parshah is about Jacob leaving his father’s home, on the run after he receives the blessing of the first born meant for his brother.  On his trek, Jacob lays down for sleep one evening and uses a rock as a pillow.  As he sleeps, he dreams of angels of God going up and down on a ladder.  Though it seems like semantics, the question that arises is how can angels go up and then down?  That order makes sense for a balloon, but shouldn’t angels come down from the heavens and return up?
The commentator RashbamRashi’s grandson, suggests that this order isn’t a literal description; rather, we say “up and down” because it is proper for us to first mention the attributes of a person that lift them up in our eyes, then – and only then – to remember when they have fallen.  That is to say, we are to always focus on finding the positive in each individual.  It is our job as members of a community to lift one another up, to bring reminders of the positive and look for the best in one another.
I am often asked why our forefathers are the men we look to as the great leaders of our people. Aren’t the first words we read from Abraham (asking Sarah to pretend she is his sister) part of a lie?  Isn’t Isaac too quiet and passive?  And what does Jacob’s lie to Isaac say about his character?  It’s important to remember that the task of building a nation of people doesn’t come easy.  Yes, theTorah tells us that our nation has come from them, but it took many tough choices and stumbles along the way.
Jacob is on a journey and not really sure where he will end up.  During Jacob’s travels he will eventually meet up with his Uncle Laban, be tricked into working seven years for Rachel, but marrying Leah instead, only to work longer to marry Rachel, his love.  Jacob was at a point in his life where it would have been easy to only see the angels come down, where everything could have felt like a giant weight on his shoulders, but God, acting as the great cheerleader, reminds him that there is always a way up. We can learn the same lesson as Jacob: to look for the upside first and make that what we carry with us.
ללמוד  To Learnללמד  To Teach: Chapter 30 of Bereshit speaks about Rachel’s attempts to overcome infertility.  The matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel each have a struggle with childbirth and infertility in one way or another.  Their struggles are still felt today by many families in our community, and treatments can be very costly.  Consider making a donation to Priya: A New Fund for Jewish Reproduction of the Dallas Jewish Community Foundation.  The word “Priya” is Hebrew for “Being Fruitful.”  This fund provides education to the Jewish community about infertility as well as financial assistance to Jewish families experiencing infertility.
לשמור  To Keep:  לעשות  To Do: Parshat Vayetzei is full of interesting family dynamics, one of the most prominent is the importance of children to a family.  Children represent the continuation of a family line.  This week, let your children know that you treasure them.  On Friday evening for Shabbat, give them a blessing.