As we prepare for a very different Thanksgiving from how we might usually spend the holiday, even as we acknowledge the complexity of the Thanksgiving holiday in general, let’s remember the importance of gratitude in all circumstances. I hope we all find ways to connect to gratitude.
Although Torah study group will not be meeting tomorrow because of the holiday, for those who would like to delve into some curated texts about the parashah, I have prepared a source sheet on Parashat Vayeitze that you are welcome to peruse at your leisure. We’ll reconvene as we usually do next week!
Parashat Vayetze (November 27, 2020)
This week’s parasha, Vayetse, begins with a journey. It opens, Genesis 28:10, וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה
Yaakov set out from Be’er sheva and walked towards Haran.
Recall that in last week’s parasha, first Yaakov extorted Esav’s birthright from him, then, with his mother’s encouragement, impersonated Esav to get his father, Yitzhak’s blessing. Towards the end of the parasha, Esav vowed to kill Yaakov, so Rivka and Yitzhak instructed him to go to Haran, ostensibly to find a wife from his mother’s family, but also to shield him from Esav’s rage.
And the parasha opens with Yaakov’s leap into the unknown. In the second verse, he encounters a place, when he lies down to sleep, and he dreams a strange dream of angels ascending and descending ladders. A vision of Hashem appears to him and offers him the Abrahamic promise: inheritance of the land, descendants like the dust of the earth, and being a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. The vision closes with the promise, in verse 15 “Behold, 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.”
Imagine Ya’akov in the moment of this vision. He has just fled for his life. His father preferred Esav, and the result of his maneuverings is that, though he theoretically has the birthright and the blessing, he has banished himself from home, from the tents that are safe and familiar, from the mother who was his champion. All his life, he has been the younger brother. Now, he is all alone.
As Dena Weiss writes on this moment: “Ya’akov meets God at a time of profound difficulty and fear. When Ya’akov prays to God it is described as va-yifga, a chance encounter. Ya’akov stumbles, and is forced to stumble upon divinity. . . When Ya’akov is feeling weak and helpless, God simply listens to him and promises to be with him.”
But Yaakov does not seem to find this reassuring: The following verses state:
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely Hashem is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Vayeera, He was awestruck – or terrified, and he said, “How nora – how terrible or how awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.”
The Hebrew root י-ר-א, which is the root of Jacob’s feeling vayeera, and what he proclaims about the place, that it is, nora – can be translated as both awe, and fear. It is not a comfortable feeling.
And indeed, the traditional commentators understand Jacob to feel deeply disturbed by this experience, and to tie it to the geographical location. Rashi and Kimchi both say that when Ya’akov explains, Surely Hashem is present and I did not know it!” He means, “if I had known what a holy place this was, I would not have dared to sleep here!” And Sforno understands Yaakov to be saying, “If I’d known I was sleeping in a holy place, I would have prepared myself to receive prophecy.
God confronts Yaakov, with the great gift, “I see you. I am with you.” But Yaakov is the less favored second child. His not used to being seen. Yaakov is so accustomed to going unseen that he has become somewhat sneaky, somewhat underhanded about how he operates in the world, as we saw too well in last week’s parasha. So of course, Hashem’s presence is terrifying. Of course Yaakov seeks to explain it away as a feature of the geography. It’s about the place. It’s not about me.
The place and the person cannot be so easily disentangled, though. Yaakov could never have received such a vision had he remained the younger brother skulking around the family compound in Be’er Sheva. By leaving home, Yaakov becomes a character in his own right. Still weighted by his relationships with his parents, with his older brother, he is no longer living their shadows. This will be his first opportunity to define himself as himself, and not just in relation to Esav. Perhaps it is only when he can begin to see himself that he can receive a vision of Hashem’s presence with him. Perhaps he is so uncomfortable because he does not like what he sees, when he looks at himself. And yet, Hashem still promises presence. The promise is humbling; it’s terrifying, and in the long run, it is transformative. It will be many years before Yaakov is ready to travels towards the home of his youth, to wrestle with an angel, to face his brother. But the evolution of his spiritual capacities begins with this moment, when he is out of his comfort zone, shaken up by the intimacy of a divine encounter. Before he can even look deeply at himself, he must be willing to consider his surroundings in a new light: I thought I was just on my way from home to my destination. Now I understand that this land in which I travel is holy.
When I worked as a Jewish environmental educator with the Teva Learning Alliance, we used to invite our students to pray the Amidah outside. And we’d tell a Chassidic story of a child who used to run off into the woods to pray, because, as she told her exasperated parents, she could communicate better with Hashem out in the woods. The parent said, “Don’t you know that God is everywhere, and God is the same everywhere?”
“Of course God is the same everywhere!” answered the child. “But I pray better in the woods because I am different there.”
In American culture, there is no such thing as holy ground. Barely anything is sacred. Hand in hand with that, there is not a great value on vulnerability – on being seen, or looking closely at the Other.
But this parashah reminds us that there is such a thing as holy ground – in the liminal spaces that are neither home, nor destination, but wherever we let ourselves catch our breath, be seen and notice in response. As Rabbi Shefa Gold writes, this parasha teaches, “the most awesome and transformative truth. God was here all along and I didn’t know it. THIS is none other than the House of God. THIS is the Gate of Heaven. This very moment and this place here where I stand is at once God’s home and the doorway to all realms.”
That divine promise of presence exists in all places. The question is not whether or not any place on earth is sacred, but whether we will walk with humility and awareness – with yirah. On this Shabbat of Thanksgiving, I want to encourage all of us to see ourselves as sojourners on sacred ground – as uncomfortable as that might be. What messages, what truths, might be available to us if we were to let see and be seen? How might that transform who we are becoming?
It is not a rhetorical question.
Banishing or Embracing Darkness (Nov/Dec 2020)
There is a popular children’s Chanukkah song in Israel, that goes, Banu choshech l’garesh, b’yadeinu ohr va’eish. . .” which, roughly translated would go: “We have come to banish dark/light and fire are in our hands. . .” the song continues, emphatically exhorting us each to be a little light, driving away the darkness.
In recent years, several of my colleagues have sought to rewrite the song, for a few reasons. Though music, literature and religious texts are replete with the casual association between light and good and darkness and evil, in this day and age, many argue that the racial problematics of the “light” seeking to banish the “dark,” in this song are inexcusable. But deeper than that is the acknowledgement that light and darkness are intertwined; that as in as much as light literally brings comfort, warmth, familiarity and darkness is challenging, mysterious and unknown; we need both in our lives.
One of the laws of Hanukkah in the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Esther and Hanukkah 4:4), states that if multiple wicks in one pot of oil can join together (as in a Havdalah candle), they become “like a bonfire” and no longer fulfill the mitzvah of Hanukkah. Part of the Hanukkah experience is seeing distinct flames, interspersed with darkness. Any of us who have lit Hanukkiyot on Chanukkah can probably relate to the magic of watching the interweave of light and darkness.
You’re receiving this newsletter at a time of increasing darkness: the literal darkness of lengthening nights as Daylight Savings Times ends, and the metaphoric darkness of the unknown. We do not know what will unfold in our country in these next few months, but it will probably bring new challenges and demand new obligations from us.
This is not a darkness we can or should seek to banish. We learn from embracing the challenges and mysteries of the moment. As we face the next few months, we’ll embrace the familiar, with holiday programs and fun interactive educational events. We will also offer programming that encourages us to rise to the new challenges of this moment, embracing light and darkness together. I hope you will participate in both.
God Bless America
Rally for Democracy (November 4, 2020)
In a moment, several of our local elected officials will be greeting us stating their support for the democratic process.
But first, I’d like to tell a story.
It’s the story of an immigrant, a 5 year-old Jew named Yisrael Beilin, who arrived in America from Imperial Russia in September of 1893. His family was fleeing the pogroms. He grew up desperately poor in New York City, every member of the family working extra jobs throughout his childhood.
When Yisrael Beilin grew up to be the world-famous composer known as Irving Berlin, he wrote a song based on his immigrant aspirations, and on his gratitude that even through the poverty, his family had been able to find a better life in America. His song, “God Bless America” expressed aspiration for all who struggle and strive for what America could be.
It’s had an interesting history – for many years, white supremacist groups refused to sing it, because it was written by a Jew. In recent decades, it has been appropriated by the far right. There has been a troubling tendency, recently, for love of country to be defined in very narrow terms, terms that would exclude those of us who hold higher aspirations for this country.
Today I encourage us to reclaim the song, not letting anyone else define what it means to love this country. We are gathered because in some way, we all hope that America will make it “through the night, with a light from above,” – and from within, and from each other.
We are here because we still aspire for America to be a place of blessing, the place of hope that it has been in the past for immigrants, like Yisrael Beilin, fleeing persecution, and that it has yet to be for so many other marginalized communities. Please sing that hope with us:
God bless America, land that I love
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with the light from above
From the mountains to the prairies
To the oceans white with foam
God bless America, my home sweet home
God bless America, my home sweet home!
Thank you. And do not let anyone tell you that your aspirations for what this country could be, or your expressions of love for this country, are un-American!