Vayetzei: Sunset to Sunrise


This post originally appeared on Neesh, Noosh.

In Vayetzei, we read that Jacob leaves Beer-sheva at sunset to travel to Laban’s house. Jacob is at Laban’s house for 20 years, during which time he faces many challenges and uncertainties that shroud his life in darkness. After the 20 years there, he leaves Laban’s house at sunrise.

The Etz Hayim commentary describes“the 20 years at Laban’s house as a ‘dark night for the soul,’ years spent struggling with the dark forces represented by Laban’s treachery and Jacob’s confronting his own attracting to deceit” (p. 166).

However, despite the challenges and darkness that Jacob deals with in the 20 years, he also connects with God.  Etz Hayim continues, “when the Sages attribute to Jacob the institution of the evening prayer (Ma’ariv), they may be crediting him as the first person able to find God in the midst of darkness” (p. 166)

Jacob’s time of darkness was an opportunity for him to find God. And, as Yael Shy comments, “Jacob leaves us with the challenge of recognizing our encounters with God in all God’s forms.”There are many dark and challenging parts of our lives and society. Our food system is one. How is it possible that the wealthiest nation in the world has 45.3 million citizens living in poverty and 49.1 million hungry people?  In addition, for29 million Americans who live in low-income areas, the nearest supermarket is more than a mile away. When someone is poor, without transportation and/or living in a low-income area without a supermarket, it significantly hampers one’s ability to eat nutritious food. Despite, this dark aspect of our society, there are countless individuals who recognize this challenge and are re-imagining our food system.

Rabbi Brad Artson writes in The Bedside Torah, about the “power of imagination” in Vayetzei. He writes that, “through the power of imagination, each of us retains the ability to transform the world. . . . Our religion trains us to visualize a better world. . . .[and] as with Jacob, our imagination can provide the necessary first step toward transforming our world and ourselves” (p. 47-48).

Many Americans are envisioning and transforming our food systems to ensures that poverty and hunger are eliminated and that all people have regular access to nutritious foods.

One such person is Karyn Moskowitz of New Roots in Louisville, KY. She’s featured in  Faith in Food: Changing the World One Meal at a Time, a fabulous new book by Susie Weldon and Sue Campbell that shares inspiring, exciting stories of global food activists who, guided by their faith, are re-imagining their food systems Karyn’s organization runs “Fresh Stops” which works with residents who are low-income and live in neighborhoods without access to fresh produce. Through New Roots, residents pool their money and SNAP (food stamps) benefits to bulk purchase fresh produce from local farms. Without this program, participants would not be eating these healthful foods.

The recipe I created this week symbolizes Jacob’s journey from sunset to sunrise, with darkness in the middle of his journey. The dish is anchored on both ends by a citrus mixture, symbolizing sunset/sunrise and black wild rice in the center to represent darkness.  The pomegranate seeds mixed with the rice are a reference to God’s recognition of Jacob’s hard work tending to Laban’s ” streaked, speckled and mottled flock.”  After presenting on a platter, to symbolize the journey, one can then blend everything together in a bowl to enjoy.

Wild Rice, Citrus, Pomegranate Dish

Ingredients

  • 2 Valencia oranges, chopped
  • 2 Mandarin oranges, chopped
  • 1 cup black wild rice
  • 1/2 Pomegranate seeds
  • 1 handful mint, chopped
  • olive oil
  • salt

Preparation

1. Cook rice over medium heat until done.

2. Chop oranges into small pieces. Finely chop mint and blend with oranges.

3. When rice is done, fold in seeds, drizzle with olive oil and add a pinch of salt. Place in center of platter and citrus mixture on each end.

4. After serving, blend ingredients together.

B’tayavon!

Never alone: Parashat Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3)


In this week’s parasha, Yaakov flees for his life, departing from Beersheva back to Charan — back to the beginning. How optimistic it had been when Avraham came to Israel two generations earlier, abandoning Charan presumably forever (Genesis 11:32-12:6). Avraham “went, took and passed.” He was journeying to a grand destiny on blessed land, where God promised he would become a great nation, blessed with wealth, with a name made great and famous.

Not so here. Vayetzei — not with a bang but with panic, Yaakov is leaving. The Promise seems to be collapsing on his watch. Grandfather Avraham arrived with anticipation. Yaakov’s father, Yitzchak, never set foot outside the Land. Yet, Yaakov’s inheritance now seems to be rupturing. Ostensibly breaking faith with the Land, he faces a Lost Journey, returning to Charan, where it all began. 

There is perhaps nothing more frustrating in life than progressing and expanding, only to be compelled to return to square one. If you have ever composed an important text on a computer only to have it crash before you could save the document, then you know the immense frustration of having to return to square one. 

Indeed, after the Sin of the Spies, when Hashem will condemn that generation’s men to wander through Sinai for 40 years, the first directive that “brings home” the enormity of the punishment is God’s command to the Jewish Nation about to enter Israel: “Tomorrow, turn [completely around] and travel back toward the desert [all the way back] toward the direction of the Sea of Reeds” (Numbers 14:25). It’s the deflation of having come so far, only to be directed now to go all the way back, to start over. 

And now Yaakov seemingly reverses Judaism’s expansion. Escaping desperately from an enraged brother sworn to murder him, he would be isolated, without smartphone or iPad, Skype or e-mail — not even a phone booth — unable to communicate with home. Can we fully grasp the loneliness of this long-distance runner who has not yet emerged as a giant of history or a Patriarch for the Ages, but instead is unmarried, with no family or ally at his side, condemned to be a fugitive? 

From our spectator seats, we enjoy the comfort of dramatic irony: we know what will unfold. But Yaakov is the actor in the play. Have we ever paused to appreciate how unbearably lost he must have felt?

The rest of the parasha gives us some comfort. He will end up at the well where Rachel quenches her father’s sheep. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Lavan’s daughter is there to lead him to his assigned destination and his life’s destiny.

This is how God conducts human affairs, including our own. We plan and prepare, choosing from among colleges and grad schools, opting for trades or professions. We attend singles’ programs, surf through dating Web sites, and we network. We analyze Dow Jones averages, evaluate financial trends, consult experts and plan accordingly. We read opinion pages, hotly debate candidates and vote based on pundits’ recommendations. We invest, consult, plan for retirement and set aside for rainy days.

There is some value in our efforts, and we are bidden to pursue the derech hateva (natural course) during our life’s journeys. Even so, we learn repeatedly that the journey often unfolds very differently from the way we plan. The son does not want to pursue the business his father built for him. A safely squirreled retirement fund blows up, whether because of an investment adviser’s failed Ponzi scheme or because the one corporation that never could go broke did. Our lives twist and turn, and sometimes — having sat very comfortably for years and having nestled ourselves securely atop a perfectly crafted sanctuary — some of us plummet down the side of Don Draper’s Madison Avenue building, feeling abandoned. It happens to more of us than anyone might think. One way or another, it happens to all of us.

And thus it is that God sends that dream to Yaakov in exile, that enormous M.C. Escher-like image of His emissaries ascending and descending the ladder that stretches from earth to His heavens. Yaakov grasps the message: he is not alone. Through angelic emissaries, Hashem has been accompanying Yaakov and will continue escorting him through Exile for the next 22 years until his return (Rashi on Genesis 38:34). God is always with him, always directing a greater, deeper plan. 

For each and every one of us, too, His plan and the reasons behind events we encounter are more complex than we imagine. Through setbacks and tribulations, not less than during the many “good” times, we can remain assured that He is with each of us, always. We are not alone.


Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.