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Parashat Vayeitzei 5781

November 27, 2020


Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah


Noticing the Good (and the Bad)
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeitzei
By Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (’16)

I always feel a bit conflicted at this time of year, and in some ways this year’s necessary changes have alleviated some of my discomfort around celebrating Thanksgiving. I love this day for food and family, for gratitude and the opportunity to share all that we have, but sometimes it’s impossible to ignore that this holiday is based on a white-washed version of history that in reality led to genocide. It’s one thing to take the time out of our busy lives to just enjoy a pause for hakarat hatov – noticing the good. But is it necessary in a time of physical shut down and overwhelming flow of information of the good and bad in this country?

I recall some years ago, a friend sharing on Facebook that they think about the Thanksgiving story as a dream of what might be. Did the pilgrims and the Native Americans ever really share bounties in perfect harmony? Maybe not. But we could still learn to share our bounties and live in harmony. Dreams can be divine inspiration, but they still require human action to come to fruition. To simply accept this dream of the Thanksgiving story at face value is to dishonor its message. We must act to ensure safety and nourishment, equality and health, racial and environmental justice, to bring about a reality that approximates the vision of the world we proclaim on Thanksgiving.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayeitzei, we read the story of Jacob’s dream – a ladder with angels ascending and descending. There is the promise of Divine presence and protection, but also a requirement for human action. Jacob must work to become Israel – 20 years for Laban, wrestling with angels, establishing norms and blessings and giving rise to the tribes that will later become our people. When he awakes from his dream, he says, “God was in this place and I did not know!” He notices the good and does not take this divine moment for granted. Yet, throughout his years of labor, he never accepts less than he deserves (or thinks he deserves). Tricked into marrying the wrong wife, he keeps working until he marries the one he loved. Nearly cheated out of material payment for his labor with the flocks, he works to ensure that he is able to leave Laban’s land with proper earnings. He is able to hold gratitude in one hand and hope and desire for more in the other.

Meanwhile, poor Leah continuously vies for her husband’s love. The Torah doesn’t tell us her level of involvement in the scheming or if she truly believed this would work out for her, though Midrash suggests she and Rachel had worked out this plan ahead of time, but it’s clear in the subsequent verses that she desires Jacob and for him to desire her. Her children’s names go back and forth between meaning some variation of “Now my husband will see me/be attached to me/love me”, and “For the Lord has seen me/therefore I praise God for this son”, etc. She is both hurting terribly over her physical loneliness and is thoroughly grateful for her spiritual fulfillment. While she prays to and praises God, she also maneuvers and takes action to try to achieve her goals.

I’m not very comfortable with all the ethics of either Jacob’s or Leah’s actions in these particular instances, but I think they arise from very human desires, and communicate an important broader point. Gratitude is well and good, but it must be combined with hard work to bring about dreams and divinely inspired hopes for a better future. We have learned time and again that “thoughts and prayers” will do very little to address the inequities and violence in our society. We must be willing to roll up our sleeves and act if we hope to see a future where all people may find their hearts filled with gratitude for what they have rather than bursting with the desire of all they deserve. This Shabbat and holiday weekend, may we work harder at kindness and righteous action, may we be more giving and more welcoming to the strangers, the poor, the orphan, the aggrieved. And may we ascend a ladder of equity toward a peace such as has yet to be known on Earth.
Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (’16) is the rabbi of Congregation Ner Shalom, a heimish Reform synagogue in Northern VA, where she lives with her husband and cat.