Skip to main content

Vayetzei Sermon

Our Torah portion opens with Jacob running from Esau. He rests for the night and dreams of a ladder going up to heaven.  He awakes and declares, “God was in this place and I did not know it.”

He then goes to the well to find a nice Jewish woman.  Unlike the other matchmaker well stories, Jacob impresses all the girls by single-handedly removing the stone from the well.  (They of course ooh and ah.)  He falls in love with Rachel.  But Laban tricks him and he marries Leah first.  I still find it baffling that he does not realize he is sleeping with the wrong woman until morning!  The rabbis say in essence, “What goes around comes around.”  Jacob tricked his father Isaac so he is similarly fooled. 

Jacob then decides to run away from Laban.  But Rachel steals the family idol.  Laban comes running after them looking for his idol.  But Rachel sits on it, declaring that she is menstruating, to hide it from her father.

The rabbis are sympathetic towards Rachel.  They apologize for her actions.  They argue that she is protecting her dad from idolatry.  I am however sympathetic towards her for different reasons.  She is married to a dreamer.  Life with Jacob must be unsettling.

Jacob lives in the present.  Rachel wants to hold on to the past.  My question for this Shabbat is: how do we live in the present while holding on to the past?

As many of you know I am the father of teenagers.  Part of the definition of a teenager is one who lives in the present.  Try telling them that they are mistaken or that you have experienced some of the same things that they are facing.  They see themselves as the first to experience whatever it is they are experiencing or doing.  They are informed only by the present, and often ignore the past.  This is part of the reason why it is so hard to talk to them about customs and traditions.

By contrast this week we are marking Kristallnacht and Veterans Day, important days that mark the tragedies and sacrifices of the past.  But I worry that we are sometimes n danger of constantly looking back.  Only remembering the past might make us see past evils and problems everywhere.  We will see all of yesterday’s problems as today’s.  But if we don’t remember we will of course, as the saying goes, repeat the same mistakes.  We will repeat the mistakes of history.  Antisemitism is sadly with us again, and we must retell these stories of 1938 and beyond.

This week I visited the Holocaust Museum in Glen Cove, a wonderful museum.  All should go there for a visit.  Again I worry, why is it easier to raise money for museums than schools?  Why do we build more museums than schools?

How do we move forward while remembering the past?  The past can of course overwhelm the present and hold the future captive.  The present with no connections to the past and history becomes directionless.  You will then wander forever.

The only answer is to take some of Rachel and some of Jacob.  Rachel stole the idols because it was comforting and reassuring.  But if Jacob had held on to these idols, if he had stayed in his father’s house, he never would have moved forward.  He never would have run, and he never would have dreamed.

Jacob would never have awakened and said, “God was in this place and I did not know it!”  I sympathize with Rachel.  But I understand that Jacob’s impulse is the one that will better guarantee the future.  It is this impulse that will carry us forward.  It is our teenagers and our youth, despite all their attitude and discomfort with history, who will guarantee the future.  They are the ones who have better internalized the spirit of Jacob.