On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Vayeitzei: Our Spiritual Ascents

Rabbi Israel Salanter wrote that it’s easier to learn the entire Talmud than to change one character trait in ourselves. Even Jacob, when he dreams of the ladder that connects heaven and Earth, is still on his path of growth and awakening. Listen to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, discuss how we can see ourselves in Jacob, and how we, like him, can become our best selves.

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Welcome to episode 46 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week we continue to reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes, with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah. We want to hear what you think, so talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @ReformJudaism. You can like us at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism, and be sure to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches us about Parashat Vayeitzei. He wonders what it really means to wake up, and he wonders, in your own lives, what is it that you are growing through or growing toward.

This week we focus our attention on Parashat Vayeitzei. Literally, the parashah begins, “Vayeitzei Ya'akov Mibe'er shava.” And Jacob literally had to hightail it out of town because, as we remember, in the end of last week's parashah, he had finagled a blessing from his father and had alienated his brother, and his brother wanted to kill him. So Jacob has to escape for his life.

And he's on the run, and he's not really sure where he is. He thinks he's in a godforsaken place. He's tired, and he lays down to take a rest. He puts a rock under his head as he goes to sleep, and he dreams of a ladder that connects heaven and Earth. And there are angels going up and down, and then he awakens.

He awakens not just as the way in which each morning, hopefully, each of us awakens, as in opening his eyes and seeing the world. No, no, he awakens to the reality that God is in that place, though he had not been aware of that when he laid down to rest. “Achein yesh Adonai b’makom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati.” Behold, God is in this place, though I did not know.

It's a powerful, it's a powerful moment in the life of spirituality, in the life of an individual named Jacob who awakens. He finds that he had been asleep, unaware in his life of the presence of God, and he thought he was literally away from all such presences. And then he realizes that this space that he had laid down to sleep is literally the connection between heaven and Earth.

So we think about, what is it that can awaken each of us, and what is it that we're growing through or growing towards? Jacob was a very, very gifted child, although certainly with his brother, they are at each other's throats. But we have in this moment the beginning of this incredible spiritual ascent of this individual named Jacob. We know that he will have his name changed next week, so don't, no spoiler alert there that next week you're going to hear that, but we think about how do we change and, in our own lives. And there's an amazing spiritual giant Rabbi Israel Salanter, who was the founder of the Mussar Movement, and he said, it's easier to change one—no, it's easier to learn the entire Talmud, 2 and 1/2 million words with the commentaries, than to change one character trait in us.

So how do we wake up? How do we wake up and grow and change from our, potentially, our youthful selves to our more mature selves? And this image of the ladder that Jacob has is the image of ascent, that we climb up rung by rung, as we grow. As we outgrow certain, maybe, relationships with our siblings that were filled with a lot of rivalries, maybe were able to overcome those and develop mature relationships with our siblings and with others around us.

So we think of Jacob, and he's not all awake because when he awakens, he wants to once again make a deal with God. He says, God, I'll tell you what. You keep me safe. Let me go on this sacred errand, and if you do all this and take care of me, I will be a devoted follower. You know, that's not how the religious life works. It's not a, it's not an episode of Let's Make a Deal with Monty Hall.

And so we get a sense that his growth and his awakening is not total. He's still on the path. And then, as he's on this path, he meets the woman of his dreams. It's one of those amazing encounters, only at a well in the Bible, like with Isaac in his moment when Eliezer, Abraham's servant, found the right one.

Jacob comes to this well, and he's told that they have to wait at the well for all the shepherds to gather so they can remove the rock from the well. But he looks at Rachel, he looks at the Rachel that he falls in love with, and he's so filled with strength that he literally, he lifts up the rock off of the well and off this water. And he is completely smitten. He knows that this compassionate, brilliant woman is to be his bride.

Of course, it doesn't turn out so simply as this man who's growing through his own history with his brother and finagling the blessing, he is, in some senses, paid back. And his father-in-law says, well, we don't actually marry off the younger child without the older sister being married. So he ends up having to work for 14 years, marries Leah, Rachel's sister, and boy, it is a complicated web. But at the end of this process, we have this overwhelming sense that here is an amazing spiritual giant realizing himself, advancing, climbing, changing, growing, struggling. It's just an amazing narrative, and I hope that as we read the story of Jacob, we see our own struggles, our own growth, our own coming to awareness.

I also, I can't help but think in a more personal way, my wife and I, over 25 years ago, were looking to buy a house in the community in which I served, a wonderful, wonderful congregation in Westchester, New York. And my wife called me one day that she saw a house, and she said, she said it was on Bethel Road. And I thought to myself, Bethel Road? That's perfect.

That's where Jacob had his dream. Jacob's dream, awaken. I thought, this is perfect. I said, we've got to buy it, honey.

My wife's a lot smarter than I am. She said, Rick. You got to see this house. It is, like, a mess. It's going to be a giant fixer-upper.

I said, no, no, no. It is just perfect. This is where we're going to have our dream. This is where we're going to raise our kids. We're going to all climb up that proverbial Jacob's Ladder.

And as it turns out, we bought the house, and for the last two decades we have lived on Bethel Road. In fact, the local postman said, it's called Bethel. I said, no, no, no. Could you humor me if I wrote it as Beth-El, because in the Bible, that's where Jacob has his dream.

The postman said, listen, Rabbi. You can write it any way you want. I'm going to bring you your mail, and so for all these years we have lived not in a godforsaken place, a beautiful place with wonderful people, but mostly wonderful opportunities to awake. To awaken to the presence of God in difficult moments, the presence of God as we struggle and grow and shed our earlier incarnations of ourselves.

So I just give all of us this beautiful image of awakening and of climbing and of struggling with all of those, maybe those character traits that are difficult. Maybe like Jacob, we can be a little bit full of ourselves. Maybe we are people who have a temper, or we have a quality of lacking in gratitude. Whatever it is, Jacobs shows us no matter who we are, we have the ability to literally become our very best selves. So whether you live on Bethel Road or you live in the middle of the desert or you live in the biblical town of Bethel, I ask us all to not only read this story, but to live this story's possibility, and to live with this sense that we, each of us, has the ability to grow and to change and to become those people that God intends us to be.

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 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.