Vayeitzei for Tots: Tikkun Olam in the Everyday Lives of Our Families

Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10−32:3

D'Var Torah By: Ellen and Peter Allard

Waking from his sleep, Jacob said, "Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!"

-Genesis 28:16

Waking up. We do it every day. Physically, that is. We go to sleep at night and awake the next morning, hopefully refreshed and ready to start a new day.

Jacob woke up. Physically and metaphorically, that is.

At the beginning of Parashat Vayeitzei, Jacob leaves Beersheba and sets out for Haran. Stopping for the night at a certain makom (place), he finds a stone and uses it for a pillow. While he sleeps, he has a dream of angels going up and coming down a ladder. In his dream, God says to him:

"I, the Eternal, am the God of your father Abraham and God of Isaac: The land on which you are lying I will give to you and to your descendants. And your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and the east and the north and the south. Through you and your descendants all the families of the earth shall find blessing. And here I am, with you: I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you ."

Jacob then awakens and realizes "Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!"

Certainly our actions can be motivated by our dreams. Sometimes an idea or a feeling from a dream can stick with us for a day and inspire us to do something we may not otherwise have done. And sometimes, like it did for Jacob, dreams can turn waking up into more than a physical act.

For us, Jacob's awakening in Parashat Vayeitzei is a reminder to think about our daily actions. We could just rise from bed and go about our daily routines as planned without thinking about what impact we could be having on the world at large. Or, upon waking up we can really open our eyes to more than just the reality that we see in front of us. This type of "waking up" can bring to our consciousness and attention what we can all do to make the world a better place. Each of us-even the youngest in our communities-can contribute in ways large and small to doing a part for tikkun olam, the healing of our world.

To achieve this level of consciousness, several things must occur. First, we must recognize that the world needs repair. Second, we must agree that the social action needed to bring about change is important enough to do something about, and vital to the health and well-being of our world. Third, we must sign the pact, metaphorically speaking, that holds us accountable for doing the work. As Rabbi Tarfon taught us, "It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either." (Pirkei Avot 2:16)

So how do we take these big abstract ideas and make them both manageable in our busy lives with young children and meaningful for the young children in our lives? One of the keys is to get the ideas out of our heads and into our hands. That is, take action! Young children learn best by doing, so get involved in some tikkun olam projects (probably already taking place at your congregation) and the big ideas and discussions will follow. Below are some examples of activities that might work for families with young children.

1. Thanksgiving typically occurs shortly after this portion is read so we are reminded that many people in our very communities don't have enough to eat. Take your children with you to the grocery store and ask them to select food to donate to an organization that will distribute it to those who need it. This can also be a lesson in nutrition if you talk about the food choices you are making.

2. Hanukkah is on the horizon and many children are already thinking about what gifts they want. This year, you can stretch your children's potential for empathy and generosity by helping them think about what other kids may want and choosing gifts for a holiday toy drive. If your community has a service for helping people with meal support, offer to make a meal and engage your children in the cooking and delivery of the meal.

3. Sometimes people have the food, clothing and "things" that they need but not the social support they'd like to have. Invite a new synagogue or school family to your home for dinner, welcoming them into the community and making new friends.

4. If your family likes to spend time outside, find a local environmental project to participate in, like cleaning up a local park, planting flowers in community flower beds or participating in a community vegetable garden.

Like Jacob, one of our patriarchs, wake up and be called to action! It is incumbent upon us to do this work. And in doing so, you will be teaching your children a life-long lesson.

Questions and Ideas for Parents:

  1. When you were a child, did your family participate in any social action projects?
  2. What are some community projects that you can work on together as a family?
  3. Experience sometimes brings us "a-ha" moments. Can you think of an "a-ha" moment you had that contributed to you making changes in your life?

Questions for Children:

  1. Have you heard any Torah stories about Jacob?
  2. What are some chores you can do at your house that will help your family?
  3. How does it feel to be helpful to other people?
Reference Materials

Pages 195–208 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition, by W. Gunther Plaut.

Originally published: