Vayetzei: Holy Humility

Inspiring the World
Is it good to be like dust?

Table for Five: Vayetzei

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.

– Gen. 28:14

Rivkah Slonim

Outreach is de rigueur. Kiruv is a buzz word.

It wasn’t always this way. Sixty-five years ago, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe began using the term Uforatzta in the context of his sending shluchim around the world, many decried, even demeaned this effort. Even those close to Chabad were bemused and skeptical.

What kind of behavior is this; uprooting young couples from their family and communities and sending them to places bereft of sufficient Jewish infrastructure? Could this effort succeed? Was this a risk worth taking? The Rebbe unwaveringly insisted that there were Jews around the world who needed someone to lovingly point them in the direction of their soul. Their inherent Godliness and connection to Torah was indubitable, but not always consciously felt or understood.

He “drafted” his young, idealistic chassidim– women and men—into the effort that would much later be dubbed the Rebbe’s army.

Kiruv, which means bringing close, implies that there are those who are far. Outreach implies there are outliers. To the Rebbe, a Jew was by definition” close.” It was simply a matter of Uforatzta–bringing the light and warmth of Jewish teachings to Jews—wherever they might be —and this truth would be revealed. Uforatzta implies not merely spreading out but bursting forth in a way that defies all obstacles and impediments.

Today we can see the fruition of God’s blessing to Yaakov, the fruits of the Rebbe’s labor, to the West, to the East, to the North and the South.

Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Freelance Rabbi, Aish/JMI Scholar In Residence

Dust of the earth. Not exactly the most rapturous of blessings! Why would “all the families of the earth” want to mimic a nation that has this quality as a defining feature?

Well, let me ask you a question. What character trait do you most admire in a Rabbi? In a teacher? In a leader? To be sure, people who rise to positions of prominence and influence in any field must employ a diverse skill-set in order to inspire their followers. But for my money there is one Middah, one character trait that must be embodied if I am to respect and follow a leader. Humility.

Brilliance doesn’t impress me. Dynamic oratory doesn’t impress me. Scholarship doesn’t impress me. Even spiritual striving doesn’t impress me. All of these can be dazzling to witness but all are vacuous if they are not accompanied by humility.

Humility expresses the realization that our talents were implanted within us and that they were gifted to us for a higher purpose. Seen through this lens, talent, passion, innovation etc. are only blessings if they are used to inspire blessing. People are quite perceptive and if they sniff self-serving ego in the words or manner of a leader, then his/her message will be lost and his/her community will lose respect.

Dust of the earth may sound demeaning. Quite the contrary, it is a blessing that highlights the trait that unleashes our talents, elevates our purpose and inspires our world. Shabbat Shalom.

Ilan Reiner, Architect & Author of “Israel History Maps”

What do you think was Jacob’s reaction upon hearing this inspirational and grandiose promise by God? Don’t need to guess. It’s written 6 verses later: Jacob uttered a vow, saying that if God will be with him, provide him with something to eat and wear and get him back home, then the Lord will be Jacob’s God. Jacob is a runaway refugee, trying to escape the wrath of his brother. Talking about the multitude of descendants spreading in every direction, doesn’t really impress him, when he doesn’t know how he will make it to the next day.

Why does he condition his faith? I think that Jacob realized that he’s the third generation of this covenant, as it was already made with Abraham and Isaac, and it’s about time to start seeing its fulfillment. From Jacob’s perspective, him running to Haran might be the ‘grand exile’ that God foretold Abraham. This means, according to the prophecy, that only his children, the fourth generation, will return to the Promised Land. Jacob needed a more ‘tangible’ assurance from God.

Jacob, like his grandfather before him, negotiated with God. He added a ‘get me back home’ clause to the covenant. Essentially, Jacob told God that only if he – Jacob himself – returns back home, will this divine promise be considered as fulfilled. When God promises him the land of Israel, Jacob himself wants to be the one who actually gets back home to live and prosper in the Promised Land.

Ilana Wilner, Judaic Studies Teacher, Ramaz Upper School

The parshah opens up with Jacob running away, from his family and from his home. Imagine Jacob as he’s leaving his home, with deep animosity towards brother, and doubt whether he has secured his place as the recipient of the inheritance. Jacob has possibly lost everything, and with loneliness beyond words, God appears to him with the promise of children and that God is with him.

God made a similar promise to Abraham, his descendents were compared to the stars and the dust, however here, Jacob’s descendents are only compared to the dust. Why is Jacob’s blessing solely focusing on dust? In Jacob’s moments of disparity, God sent Jacob both a blessing and a message of reassurance.

Rabbenu Bachya notes that dust not only evokes a large quantity, a number we can’t even count, but also a feeling of lowliness. God affirming the blessing of dust is to be interpreted positively and at the same time reminds Jacob that God is and always will be with him. Even when we feel as Jacob does, abandoned and desolate, God appears. God reminds him that when we feel at our lowest, He is always there for us.

Rabbi Tova Leibovic-Douglas, @rabbi_tova

In our narrative, Jacob had just stolen his brother’s birthright and fled. He is alone, attempting to sleep with potential guilt, shame, and fear. It is precisely in this moment that he has a dream of a ladder with angels descending and ascending and a conversation with the Divine, promising him that all will be okay. It is unexpected and remarkable.

Our narrative is one with humanity. The story of Genesis is a revelation of family systems and the perfectly imperfect souls that harbor them. Many of us gathered together on Thanksgiving with family recently. While there were moments that were hopefully beautiful and pure, there were possible experiences that pushed any of us to want to steal our sibling’s birthright or, at the very least, run away. This story is a reminder that this is natural. We are invited into a family dynamic to be the mirror for our own.

Traditionally, we look towards our patriarchs and matriarchs as exceptions, not the rule. We see them as unique and more connected to the Divine. Yet, their imperfection makes them relatable and potentially worthy of connection. This verse reminds us that, like Jacob, no matter the circumstances in our families or the baggage we carry, there is a potential to connect to the Divine in our lowest and scariest moments. Each of us may have our ladder of angels waiting for us. What would happen if we allowed ourselves to dream of this possibility.

With thanks to Rivkah Slonim, Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Ilan Reiner, Ilana Wilner and Rabbi Tova Leibovic-Douglas

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