On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Vayeitzei: Hate Will Not Define Us

In Parashat Vayeitzei, Jacob leaves Beersheba and sets out on a journey full of potential  danger and panic. Reading this parashah only a few weeks after the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, it especially resonates this year. In this episode of On the Other Hand, Rabbi Jacobs discusses what the Jewish community can learn from Jacob’s journey in our own time.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a bit about the Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Vayeitzei and he reminds us that even when we are scared, we still can and must go out.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Vayeitzei from the Book of Genesis. The opening word of the parashah, vayeitzei, means "and he went out." The he referred to is Jacob, and it says that he left Be'er Sheva and set out for Haran. It sounds innocently enough that they, kinda, just tell the story. Jacob our patriarch is going on a trip! But it turns out, the trip he is on, the journey he is on, is so filled with fear and uncertainty and danger that our sainted ancestor is near panicked. And I have to say, to hear these words particularly just a couple of weeks after the massacre in Pittsburgh, at the Tree of Life synagogue. I know it's a few weeks after that you're listening to this podcast, but when I recorded the podcast, we were just a couple of days after Pittsburgh. And to say that this story resonates is to state the obvious. I think this idea that Jacob went out is counterintuitive. When, I think, we're most afraid. I think our decision is not to go out and to hunker down and to stay in and try and build thicker walls -- and not have to face the uncertainty of the outside world. But Jacob has no choice. He's escaping -- he's escaping his brother's wrath and the potential that he could, in fact, be murdered by his brother, who is furious about the birthright and the blessing that were stolen. We're thinking as a Jewish community, dare we go out, dare we venture forth in a world?

And just in these opening days, there have been more really horrific graffiti attacks here in New York City, in southern California, Orange County where I spent my high school years. It is real clear and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been saying it loud and clear: 57 percent increase in the anti-Semitism -- whether it's online, whether it's harassment, whether it's actually violent acts -- we're living in a fearful moment. And of course, the individual responsible for the mass shooting in the synagogue in Pittsburgh. Clearly, there's something deranged. And yet at the same time, may I say that we are living at a moment when the lid is off of hatred and bigotry. And what we are seeing across not just the Jewish world, where we feel the intense fear of anti-Semitism, violent anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism that now has assault weapons -- but we're also seeing the danger that others in our circle of relationship, whether they be Muslims, or Christians, or Sikhs, or refugees, or asylum seekers -- there's an intense feeling of vulnerability. Amazingly, we have in this narrative that God senses the fear that is being experienced so intensely. And when Jacob lies down to rest, and it's just the middle of nowhere, he can't find a safe place, so he just lies down and takes a rock and puts it under his head. And in the course of this dream, of course, you know, the dream of the ladder. But in the course of the dream you have this amazing reassurance that God says. God says, "vi'hinei anochi imach." God says, "Remember, I am with you." You're on this journey. I am with you on this journey.

It recalls the psalm that so many of us turn to at times of loss and death, which is Psalm 23, where we have that so powerful phrase "ki atah imadi." We're walking through the valley of the shadows of death and loss, but we don't feel long because God is with us. I know it's a moment when sometimes, we're having trouble feeling God with us on this journey, and is God's presence with us enough? Does it take away the danger? Does it take away the feeling of vulnerability? I have to say, that one of the things is so inspiring about this moment and what makes this moment so different from other moments of history, whether you go back to ancient times, the Roman oppression, Middle Ages and some of the different pogroms and attacks that our people withstood, or you go to the 1930s -- 1938, Kristallnacht, November 9th and 10th, very, very close to the time of this podcast when we remember the Night of Broken Glass, that in, you know, kind of the precursor to the Final Solution, our people saw their businesses and their synagogues torched, and the glass broken, and the feeling of vayeitzei, to go out then was to be completely vulnerable. There was no one to protect us. They're warned, as we have today the Christian and the Muslim and the wider faith community standing up for us.

A classic example: in Toronto, Canada, at our large congregation Holy Blossom just this week, they're anticipating this Shabbat that a beautiful array of faith communities are going to literally ring the synagogue in a in a circle of love and protection. It's beautiful to imagine God is with us. But I have to say, in that kind of concrete gesture, I think we could sense God's presence through the hands and hearts of these other faith communities. I know as soon as the shooting took place, that my phone was on fire with -- I mean, that in terms of so many people reaching out, so many faith leaders, civil rights leaders, people saying we are with you. This is an attack on you, but it is a attack on all of us. And we will stand together. That's something, frankly, that is completely new in Jewish history -- and it doesn't take away the pain and the loss and the fear. But it is such an expression of love and mutual responsibility, interconnected feeling that it gives us a sense of hope. And we are so focused these days on trying to make our communities more secure. What will do that? Will we be able to, maybe, reconfigure some of the spaces to make more secure entries, to have cameras and better locks and better procedures? All those things are important. But the thing that, frankly, gives security to our community is the sense that we are not alone. We are in this together, and those are relationships that are built person by person, community by community, faith communities with other faith communities. It's not something to take lightly. And it's not something that we can do instead of taking security measures, but we can't ultimately make our synagogues into bunkers. We can't take the rocks that Jacob placed under his head, we can't place those rocks all around us and then just stay, you know, tucked in between them -- though it may feel that we must, we need to go out. Vayeitzei Yaakov -- we need to go out into this world, we need to go out and be beacons of conscience and kindness and compassion and strength for one another.

And it also is the case that we need to show up. I know that we're anticipating that our synagogues are going to overflow this coming Shabbat, which will be a little bit in the immediate past when you listen to this podcast. But the people who are showing up aren't simply the Jewish people who go regularly, like the amazing people who were in Tree of Life Synagogue on that fateful morning. Those were the regulars. They were there early, they were there whole-heartedly, God bless them. But our synagogues are going to be filled with people who aren't necessarily regulars, and maybe aren't even Jewish. But we are going to stand together, we're going to pray together, and we're going to remember that fear will not conquer this moment. Hate will not define us. And we are going to stand strong, and we're going to stand together, and we're going to stand whenever there's an attack on one.

I remember when our Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia was desecrated, and immediately the faith community showed up. The Muslims were there, the Christians were there and said this, this is an affront to all of us. It's amazing that in these days, we've had incredible sums of money raised by the by the Muslim community, by other faith communities [asking] "What do you need? How can we be present?" And let me also say that our Jewish community, which is at times so fractured and so divided, is feeling such a deep sense of inter-connectedness, a sense of unity -- not unanimity, but unity, a sense we are in this together. And last thought, I'm remembering back to a horrific attack in Tel Aviv, a nightclub called the Dolphinarium. It was June 1st 2001, and 21 Israelis were viciously murdered -- 16 of them were teens. And I remember a few months later going by that Dolphinarium and the same feeling that many of us are going through with Pittsburgh and paying our not only respects, but our love and condolences to the families. But in Tel Aviv, a little sign was put on the side of this demolished nightclub it said, "lo naph'sik lir'kod." We will not stop dancing. We will not stop living. We will not stop loving. And we will not stop going out. Vayeitzei Yaakov -- go out into the world. Be that blessing. Conquer your fear. Bring a sense that God is with us on this journey -- and we are with each other on this journey.

And that doesn't change everything. But boy, it changes so much. So, let's find that strength in community, let's find that strength in ourselves, in our prayerfullness, and our sense of God's presence that never, ever leaves us -- especially when we walk through those dark shadows and those valleys of pain and loss. Let's hold each other up. Let's stand together. Let's stand strong, stand with love. Love will conquer this. And I'll just say: so will our ability to shape the values and the policies of our communities. There is a time right now to think about gun violence prevention, to think about hatred and incitement. We have had a plague of incitement and violent rhetoric. And when you have violent rhetoric, it's not a surprise when you have more violence. And so, we have to address that. It's not just by praying and standing together, we've got to act together, we've got to change the status quo. We have got to hold back the hate-filled rhetoric, and we have got to stop arming hate-filled extremists in our country, in our world. That's a lot of work. You're listening to a podcast, you're thinking boy, Rabbi Jacobs,, give us a little bit more don't give us so much homework! But that's the work. The work is to be present, to be strong, to be strategic, and to be able to go out -- vayeitzei Yaakov. Let's go out. Let's go out and be a blessing, let's go out and help others live with courage -- and sometimes, with the fear that is so real, and let us, as we go out, shape the world as it ought to be.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah." If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. "On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!