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Parshat Vayetze 5782         November 13, 2021

Rabbi Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

The psychology of Jacob as he leaves his home and goes off to the “old country” is filled with all manner of complications. What is going through the head of this man who will one day be the third patriarch of our people as he sets out on this journey? He certainly does not feel like a patriarch now. He has stolen the birthright and the blessing from his brother Esau, incurring the wrath of a brother who is bigger and stronger than he is. Once his parents die, will Esau come looking for revenge for all that Jacob has done? He has been blessed by his father Isaac, but does Jacob believe that he is worthy of a blessing? Given his life of tricks and deceptions, does Jacob think he deserves the exile that he must now endure?

It is not supposed to be an exile, however; the “excuse” for this journey is to find a wife from the family in Aram just like his mother Rivka was brought from the old country for Isaac. Esau has married Canaanite women and Isaac and Rivka are very unhappy with his choice. Jacob will not be allowed a “local” girl; he must go back to where the families are more “civilized” than those in the hinterlands of Canaan. Will Jacob ever see his parents again? When will he ever get to come “home”? Is God with Jacob on this journey? God never allowed Isaac to leave the land promised to Abraham. What will God say about Jacob leaving the land? Is this exile not only the punishment of his parents, but is it also a punishment from God? There is a lot on the mind of Jacob as he walks off, alone, to the ancestral home in the land of Aram.

As the sun goes down, Jacob gathers some stones to serve as his bedding. He falls asleep and dreams his famous dream about a ladder between earth and heaven, angels climbing up and down the steps. It is like prayers ascending to heaven on the wings of angels, as wisdom and understanding from God, come down the stairway to earth. As Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, the long-time chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary would say: “when I pray, I talk to God; when I study, God talks to me.” God does speak to Jacob in this dream. God tells Jacob that it will all be OK. God will be with Jacob in all his journeys and will protect him from all dangers.

Jacob wakes up in the morning and takes a very strange vow. Jacob says: “If God remains with me, if God 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. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that you give me I will set aside a tithe for you” (Genesis 28:20–22). What kind of a vow is this? It is conditional. Jacob is making a bargain with God. If you scratch my back, I will scratch yours. God, you do something for me, and I will do something for you.

Is this how we talk to God? Do we demand favors before we do what we are commanded to do? Is a vow to God just another business transaction? I get what I want and let you get what you want? The Talmud is not happy with this vow and are quick to criticize Jacob for placing conditions on God. But Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at JTS, notes that this is a common type of vow. Hannah, in the book of Samuel vows that if God gives her a son, she will commit him to serve God. In the book of Numbers, the Israelites promise to dedicate the spoils of war to God if God will give them victory over the King of Arad. In both of these cases, if God does not come through, there can be no vow. If God does not give a son to Hannah, then she can’t give him to serve God. If God does not make Israel victorious, then there will be no spoils to dedicate to God. If God does not protect and bring Jacob home safely, then Jacob will not be able to fulfill his vow.

Rabbi Diamond writes: “In other words, these votaries are not withholding some expression or act of religious devotion so as to use it as a bargaining chip. Rather, they promise God that if their prayers are answered, they will not forget who it was that answered them. In each case the promised action is a manifestation of gratitude, a larger acknowledgement that God is the ultimate source of blessing, and a commitment to use God’s gifts in the spirit of generosity. These vows are about giving, not taking.”

There is a famous story of two men in a boat. Irving and Sam. A storm comes up and the boat capsizes. Sam survives and Irving dies. Irving’s wife asks Sam what happened? Sam says, “I tried to save him, I kept calling to Irving ‘give me your hand, give me your hand’ but he just looked at me and drifted away.” “You idiot” says Irving’s wife, “Irving was a stingy miser. He never gave anyone, anything. You should have said, “TAKE my hand” and you would have saved him.”

There is also a story of a woman in the parking lot of a mall. There is not a parking spot to be found. Up and down each aisle and there is nothing. The woman begins to pray, “Dear God if you help me find a parking space, I will go to synagogue every day until the end of the year.” As she finishes her prayer, suddenly a car pulls out right in front of her. She says, “Never mind God, I found one myself.”

We like to think that people are either “givers” or “takers.” Some people are generous to an extreme and others only know how to take. But the reality is that we are all givers and takers. What is important is what we do with what we take. Do we hoard all we acquire, or do we take from what we have and give it to others who may need it? Jacob is vowing to be a giver, that he will express his gratitude for all the blessings that God sends his way. He will never forget the good that God does for him and will do all he can to repay the blessings he receives. Compare Jacob to Lavan, his uncle, who turns out to be a worse swindler that Jacob ever was. Jacob works 21 years for Lavan and Lavan tries to get out of paying his son-in-law. When Jacob tries to escape this endless servitude, Lavan chases after him to bring him back. All the hostility in Jacob comes out as he confronts his father-in-law: “These twenty years I have spent in your service, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried, nor did I feast on rams from your flock. That which was torn by beasts I never brought to you; I myself made good the loss; you exacted it of me, whether snatched by day or snatched by night. Often, scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night; and sleep fled from my eyes. Of the twenty years that I spent in your household, I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flocks; and you changed my wages time and again. Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac, been with me, you would have sent me away empty-handed. But God took notice of my plight and the toil of my hands, and He gave judgment last night.” What is Laban’s response? “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine.” (Genesis 31:38–43)

God has already appeared to Lavan in a dream telling Lavan not to try anything with Jacob for good or bad. Lavan is a taker and can’t give Jacob anything. But God again protects Jacob from the hand of this avowed thief. So, it all comes down to how we see the accomplishments in our life. Are we like Jacob, operating under a vow to show gratitude for all our blessings? Or will we be like Lavan, only happy when we can take advantage of others? It is not a difficult decision. But it is surprising how some people never see that they have evolved into being a taker, never being happy if they have to give up from what is theirs.

Rabbi Diamond, in this weeks JTS parsha lesson, concludes, “It is easy to take for granted the generosity of others, whether out of a sense of entitlement, self-centeredness, or an unwillingness to acknowledge the role of others in bringing about our successes and achievements. We are particularly prone to be oblivious to the daily divine gift of existence itself. We need not wait for a heavenly dream to realize that God and God’s angels, whether heavenly or terrestrial, are always present in our lives, guiding and supporting us in good times and bad. It remains for us to acknowledge what we have received and to use those gifts in the spirit of the love and care with which they have been given.”

We need to really look at our lives and consider the gifts that we have received from others. The teachers who gave us the skills to be successful. Our parents for their decisions about the opportunities we would have as children. The mentors who took us under their wings to show us the secrets to success. What have we done to pay these gifts forward? Have we shared what we know with others who look to us for guidance, or do we see them as competitors? Have we ever acknowledged the contributions of others to our success? Have we ever thanked those who gave of themselves for our success in life? Rabbi Mark Loeb, of Baltimore, never knew that the one time he taught a class of teens at a camp in North Carolina, that I was in that class and his teaching pushed me to want to be a rabbi. I never forgot his teachings and shortly before his death, I finally got the chance to thank him for helping me even though I knew that he had no idea who I was nor was I sure he would even remember teaching that class. It did not matter, I owed him a great deal for making me the Rabbi I have become.

And then there are all the blessings from God. Just before Shacharit, in the prayer, “Nishmat Kol Chai” we admit that it is impossible to properly thank God for all the myriad blessings that God gives us every day. Every breath we take, with every beat of our heart, with every day that our bodies are protected from the sickness and injuries that could strike us down. For every act of kindness, for every prayer answered, even if it is a prayer for a parking space, God is always there for us. God and God’s angels have made every moment of our lives possible. The questions remain, what have we done to show our appreciation to God? How can we repay God for even 1/1000th of the blessings we have received? Have we shared any of our blessings with others, being God’s messenger/angel in the life of someone else? Have we fulfilled our duties to God to protect not only this planet from destruction but protect those who are most vulnerable from disaster? Have we taken the time to see or hear the call of someone who is alone and lost and given them our hand to help them find their way? Are we so self-centered that we can only think that our own brains and wily genius have made us all that we are? Are we like Lavan or are we like Jacob? Will we drown in a stormy sea because we can’t even give someone else our hand? Do we use our gifts in the spirit of the love and care with which they have been given?

God was with Jacob and Jacob will fulfil his vow. God is also with us in our lives, even if we don’t always know it. If we can be a giver and use our gifts to help others, then we will come to know fully the extent of the blessings we have been given. We must look for the blessings in our life and then share those blessings with all whose lives touch our own.

May God give us the wisdom to see all the good with which we have been blessed and may God give us the strength to overcome selfishness and share our blessings with others as we say ….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784