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Vayishlach 5783      December 10, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom,

I like to tell stories. They make ideas easy to remember and can have an impact on our life long after we first hear them. There is one story that I tell that is like a work of art. We can find in it many different meanings depending on what we bring to the table as we hear it.

It is a story of a poor man named Yankel. He lives in Cracow, Poland. He lives in a small one room hut with a small kitchen, a small bed, a chair, and a table. He has nothing, but he has his dreams. He is always dreaming about some day in the future when he becomes a rich man. He dreams of all the good things he will do with all his wealth.

One day he has a dream, a very vivid dream, of a castle, a bridge, a river, and a voice that tells him that the river is the Vistula River, and the bridge is in Budapest and under that bridge is a treasure that is waiting there just for him. He has the dream several nights in a row. Each time the voice tells him, “Why are you still here?”

So, Yankel the dreamer gets his shovel and starts off to Budapest. It is a long journey. When he arrives, he finds everything exactly as he saw it in his dream, the castle, the bridge, and the river. He can see the exact spot where the treasure is buried. What he also sees is that the bridge is heavily guarded by soldiers and that there is no way he can dig under the bridge without arousing suspicion. So, he sits on the bank of the river and tries to figure out how he is going to get his treasure.

But sitting on the banks of a river near an important bridge for a long time is suspicious behavior. Eventually the captain of the guard confronts Yankel and asks him why he is sitting by the bridge. Yankel tells the captain the truth. He had a dream that a treasure for him was buried in a spot under the bridge. The captain looks at him for a minute and starts to laugh. “You are dreaming of treasure?” he laughs, “Everyone dreams of treasure. I even have dreams of treasure that somewhere in Cracow, Poland there is a guy named Yankel who has a treasure buried under his kitchen! Do you think that I am going all the way to Cracow to dig in someone’s kitchen? Go home, you fool, and stop chasing dreams.”

So, Yankel goes home, digs under his kitchen, and finds the treasure of his dreams. He becomes a wealthy philanthropist who cares for the other poor people of his city.

I think we can see a bit of the Wizard of Oz in this story, a person who travels far from home only to discover everything they dreamed of is right in their own backyard. And we can also talk about how sometimes we must go far away to appreciate what we already have.

But today I want to take this story to a different place. In our Parsha, Jacob is again in a difficult position. Last week we found him fleeing from his brother, leaving his home with just the shirt on his back. Now Jacob has family, flocks of sheep and is successful, but he is again in danger. He has just promised his father-in-law Lavan that he will not go back to Paddan Aram. And coming to meet him is his brother, the one who wanted to kill him 20 years ago, with 400 armed men. Jacob has no place to go and is in no position to fight his brother. He attempts to divide up the family so that they all will not be killed, and once again he finds himself alone at night on the banks of a river.

This time he encounters a Man or maybe an Angel, who begins to wrestle with Jacob. Is this a real encounter? Jacob will be wounded in this encounter in his hip and will not walk straight again. But maybe the wrestling is in his head, as he tries to sort out all the trouble he has caused in his life. Jacob fights until it is almost morning and has his opponent pinned down. “Let me go, I must be gone before morning,” the angel says. “Bless me first” insists Jacob. “What is your name?” “I am Jacob” The angel replies, “you are no longer Jacob but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and humans and have won.”

Jacob the grifter, has now become Israel, a man who doesn’t need tricks to get through his life, but has the blessing of one who has wrestled with his angels and has a clear idea of who he is and where he is going. The new name, Yisrael, incorporates all of his past. The yod, of Yisrael stands for Yaakov and his father, Yitzchak; the Shin, for Sarah, his grandmother; the Resh for Rivka his mother and for Rachel his wife; the Aleph for Abraham his grandfather; and the Lamed for Leah his wife. Jacob/Yisrael has come a long way in his life and his new name sums up all that he has learned from those who came before him.

We all carry more than we know when we venture out into the world. We do all that we can to make our own way, but we carry the names, values, and traditions of our family wherever we go. It is not unusual that when we introduce ourselves to someone new, that the person might know someone else in our family and will form opinions about us based on what they remember about someone else.

We may make conscience decisions to NOT repeat in our lives what we feel are the mistakes of our parents. And yet, when facing new or unusual circumstances we fall back on the memories that we carry from them. Who here can say that they never repeated to their own children words that were first spoken by their parents? We channel our parents more often than we would like to admit.

As we get older, we begin to discover the hidden wisdom in what we learned from our parents. While the world creates new problems that we must face every day, we still find that we live our life not much differently than our family did. I think this is part of the reason there is such interest these days about family history and genealogy. When we explore our past, we can sometimes discover why we have been raised with the values that we carry.

I do want to be clear, not every family is perfect. It is a well-known fact that sometimes the bad things our parents teach us gets carried down to the next generation. Social workers know that verbal abuse and physical abuse runs in families. Bigotry, hatred, and prejudice also are taught from one generation to another unless there is an intervention that opens the eyes of one blinded by their biases. Mental health professionals work long and hard to overcome the damage that some parents load on to their children.

Times do change and often what was normal for our family when we were growing up, is no longer appropriate today. Parents today keep a much closer watch over their children than our parents did when they let us bicycle all over town. Parents today must weigh how much screen time their children should have, when they should get their own cell phone, and which websites should be blocked from their sight. Cartoons today are far less violent than what we once watched, but the advertising is more targeted than ever.

We carry an inheritance from our families, not a financial inheritance, but an emotional inheritance. Most of the time what we carry does not really have much of an effect on our lives. Some people consider it an act of blasphemy against their parents if they change a recipe or let someone else do a simple home repair. It can be a difficult moment when we buy a car from a brand our parents distrusted or register for a different political party. When someone comes to me interested in converting to Judaism, I always ask, no matter how old they may be, if they have discussed this with their family. I am always wary of creating a tear in the fabric of a family.

It is a common experience that when our parents are gone, we suddenly realize that we can’t ask them for an opinion anymore. We know what our parent believed but we no longer can know why they had the beliefs that they carried. I am sure that we have all wished, at some time or another, that we could talk one more time with our parents to learn a little bit more about who they are and how they made the decisions that still affect our lives.

Like Yankel in the story, we have to go out into the world and experience life for ourselves before we can appreciate what we had in our homes. Recently my son called me one morning, after a long battle with his toddler to get dressed for the day and said, “Now I understand why you insisted that we had to get dressed before we had breakfast.” There is treasure buried in the advice and lessons of our parents. Sometimes we just need to look out into the world to see the wisdom we already have.

Yaakov struggled his whole life dealing with the different preferences his parents had. He learned to live by his wits. But that no longer worked when he is the father of 12 children of his own. He needs a new style of living. He must wrestle with the concept of who he is, how he become the grifter, and how he can change to be the kind of father his children will need. He becomes Yisrael, the one who wrestles with God, and with the influences f

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783