Divrei Torah

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November 15, 2018 - Parashat Vayeitze 5779

A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayeitze
by Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11)

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Jacob leaves home. He doesn’t leave by choice, though. He has to leave because his life is in danger–his brother wants to kill him. He runs away, ending up in the wilderness, alone, with nothing, it seems, except the clothes he is wearing. He sleeps with his head on a rock. He’s headed in the direction of Haran, where his mother’s family lives, but he has never met them. Jacob is not an immigrant. He is a refugee.

In that desolate night when he is so alone, Jacob has a dream of a ladder to heaven, with angels going up and down the ladder. God assures him that he will be protected and have countless descendants. It is an amazing experience for Jacob, who says after he awakens, “God was in this place, and I didn’t know it!” (Gen. 28:16) He was not so alone after all, though the encounter leaves him filled with awe and fear, and he seems unready to fully trust God.

When he arrives in Haran and meets Rachel, he finds out who she is, rolls a heavy rock off a well so her sheep may drink, then kisses her and bursts into tears. Often this is explained as his reaction to falling in love with her at first sight, but I’d like to suggest a different interpretation. I think that despite God’s promise, Jacob was feeling lost and unsure of where he would find safety and a place to live. When he meets Rachel and realizes she is his relative, he knows that he has found a safe haven. He knows his relatives will take him in, and he will not be alone anymore. In his overwhelming relief, he finds the strength to roll a heavy stone from the well, bursts into tears and kisses Rachel.

This flood of relief at arriving at a place that feels safe, after having to escape death and undergo a lonely, perilous journey, is one that immigrants and refugees often feel, if they are fortunate enough to arrive at a safe place.

There is a caravan of desperate people fleeing violence, crime, and poverty in their countries. Imagine how bad life must be in Honduras for people with small children, for women who are pregnant, for anyone to walk away from their whole life toward the United States. They must know that the president of the U.S. doesn’t want them. They have no idea what’s going to happen, but they are going anyway; I can only imagine because they feel it can’t be worse than staying.

Negative rhetoric about refugees these days often focuses on fears of violence. The president has characterized those who cross our southern border as criminals or terrorists. There are other fears, though, too, which are less frequently spoken. These fears have to do with people who we perceive as different from ourselves. What if a lot of refugees come to our country and change it? What if they are more socially conservative than some of us, and over time they influence government policy in a direction we don’t like? If they come here and get jobs, does that mean some of us won’t be able find jobs? Are they anti-Semitic, and if so, how will that play out?

Underlying all of the fears is the deepest fear of all: Will I or my loved ones lose our lives if these strangers come here? Not just our physical lives, though that is part of the fear, but also our way of life.

These fears are real, and they matter. With the possible exception of the fear of terrorists, they are also fears that accompanied the arrival of every group of new immigrants to our country. And our country has changed because of the people who have come here, and it will continue to change. We can’t prevent that. It isn’t always comfortable, and it doesn’t always go in a direction that we feel is positive. This is reality.

In our Torah portion, Jacob is a fleeing victim under threat of death, but we can’t describe him as an innocent victim. He coerced his brother into giving up the birthright, and deceived his father into giving him the blessing that rightfully should have gone to his brother. That’s what brought his brother to the point of wanting to kill him. Even though he doesn’t fit the model of the innocent victim, he still is worthy of help; he should still have a place to live and be safe. He finds that place in his uncle’s household, and it changes because he is there. Jacob marries into his uncle’s family, fathers many children, and changes the flocks through the way he breeds them.

It is fortunate for him, and for us, that his uncle was willing and able to take a chance on him, and accept whatever would come from it.

Every day we pray for peace, and every day there is violence in the world. Peace is very far away, and full peace is likely unachievable—there will always be those who attack and kill others. Perhaps we should pray for acceptance—not acceptance of violence, but acceptance that we are never fully safe, and each of us will, one day, die.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, speaks of the fear of death as our most basic fear, the one that ultimately lies under all other fears. He writes and speaks about facing our own fear with love and compassion, practicing mindfulness so that we are not fearful of the future or burdened by the past, but living always in this moment. The words are simple, but the practice is very difficult. We are surrounded by news that makes us horrified, sad, and always more fearful.

Many of the teachings of our tradition foster the building of community, which is one of the bulwarks against loneliness and fear. We are told over and over and in many different ways to pursue justice, to show hospitality, to care for the poor and the stranger. A midrash on the creation story asks why humanity was created starting with just one person, Adam, and answers: To teach that each one of us is like a whole world, because each one of us is made up of a unique set of DNA and life experiences. Therefore, one who saves a life, it is as if he or she has saved a whole world. And one who takes a life, it is as if he or she has destroyed a whole world. (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)

Living in fear is really an unhappy way to live. It casts a shadow over all that we do, and fear turns easily to anger and hatred, which leads to more violence, which leads to more fear. Our lives are better when our compassion is bigger than our fear. Our lives are better when we can believe this truth: that the majority of people are not out to hurt others, certainly not out to kill others. We might encounter one of those who does want to hurt and kill, but it is unlikely and out of our control. Living in fear only brings pain into the life we have, even while we are safe.

This is one of the reasons people talk about trusting in God. Trusting in God means recognizing that we cannot fully control what happens to us. Rather, we live in hope and compassion, trying to bring more love into the world, trying to diminish fear, anger, and hatred. Practicing gratitude—toward God, or toward the universe, or just in general—is another way to increase positive thoughts in our lives, and we’ll have an opportunity for that next week at Thanksgiving.

Perhaps there are a few criminals among the refugees in the caravan, or among the millions of other refugees from Yemen, from Syria, from other war-torn places. I’m not trying to minimize the damage criminals do, but to recognize that the vast majority of refugees are just regular people. In some ways they are different than we are, and they are trying to find a place to be safe. Is our fear so great that it overcomes our compassion? Perhaps it is. Each of us has to decide how we want to live, to what extent we will make decisions out of fear, and to what extent we are able to make decisions out of compassion.

Cultivating compassion and working to reduce our fear leads to more happiness than allowing fear to make our lives smaller as we try to control or eliminate danger.

I pray that we will all stay safe. It is so hard not to be overwhelmed by fear when we see the news. I pray that we can be not only physically safe, but that our spirits may remain hopeful and loving, even in the face of evil and violence. May we not be overcome. May we continue to believe in redemption, in the possibility of peace, in connection between human beings, including those who are different than we are, recognizing that most of us want the same thing: safety for ourselves and those we love. May the day come when all those who are alone and in danger experience the relief that Jacob feels in our Torah portion upon meeting Rachel and feeling that he will soon be in a safe place. May we have less fear and suffering. Though we lack peace in our world, may we find peace. Though we are fearful, may we love and support each other.
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Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) teaches Conversion at AJR. She is the rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek and Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom in Brooklyn, NY.