Rabbi Freedman’s Shabbat Message
A TIME OF TRANSITION
THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK – RABBI DAVID FREEDMAN
ow blessed we are today – in the midst of harrowing times for the Jewish people – to be able to celebrate with a young Bar Mitzvah boy and his family as he embarks on his adult life, and a Choson Kallah, together with their respective families, as they begin their new life together as a married couple, building what we know will be, a Bayit Ne’eman beYisrael – a home faithful to everything that Jewish tradition holds dear.
When explained in this way, we can, I hope, begin to appreciate, what is really happening here this morning: we are celebrating transition, we are acknowledging those great moments in a person’s life – not when they reach their destination, but when they begin their journey – with so much hope, expectation and opportunity awaiting them in the future.
It always amazes me how the sidra of the week reflects our own experiences and speaks to us directly. In this way, the week’s Torah reading educates us, relates to what we are feeling; and helps us appreciate and understand the meaning of life, in any given moment.
So here we are reading the sidra of Vayyetze, which essentially is the story of the evolution of a young person into a complex, responsible and mature human being.
Jacob left home alone frightened, without much worldly experience and yet by the end of the sidra he has become a husband, a father, a successful businessman, a leader – above all – an independent thinker.
From simply living at home with his parents, somewhat in the shadow of his rather aggressive and impulsive brother, the sidra charts his course. He marries, yet remains dependent on his father in law; he has children and only slowly begins to develop an independent streak; and then as the sidra progresses so does Jacob’s personality and character, so that by the end of Vayetze – he leads his family back to Canaan and establishes, through his many children, a new nation – a nation named directly after him – for they are to be known as the Bnei Yisrael – the Children of Israel (Jacob’s other name given to him by God).
Although Vayetze is read in less than one hour – these few chapters cover many years of Jacob’s life.
He, like all of us – in order to evolve and in order to achieve, had to go through many stages of life – infancy, childhood, adolescence, and various degrees of adulthood.
It is said by some scientists that among the animal world, the more primitive the creature the more quickly it reaches full maturity. A human being – the most intelligent and sophisticated animal that exists on earth – by contrast, takes the longest to develop; a human being walks later, communicates later and reproduces later than other creatures. And, of course his/her capacity to think and reason, imagine, achieve intellectual depth, spiritual height and social awareness is a slow and often arduous journey.
From an evolutionary perspective, the fact that humans reach maturity so slowly, relative to other species, is a puzzle, because the leisurely pace of their development clearly has costs, but there is one aspect that is critical – because we mature relatively slowly, we requires greater parental investment in our development and ultimate success as human beings.
In the Jewish community nothing is more obvious – we have a young boy here today turning thirteen – but today is as much his parents’ simcha as his.
We have a young man and woman – two exceptional and beautiful people who have found each other, found love and are now filled with excitement at what the future will bring them – but today is as much a simcha for the four parents, and for that matter, grandparents – as the couple themselves.
How can one quantify, explain, define or describe the role of parents – what you have done for your child, what you have sacrificed for them, what you have given them in unconditional love and support – just so that they could arrive at this amazing moment in their life. Sometimes when we look at the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, and see the command to honour our parents is on the same side as laws bein adam la-makom – between man and God – we ask shouldn’t this law be on the other side – it is surely just a matter of bein adam lechaveiro – between man and his fellow – but this is missing the point – being a parent contains within it a touch of the divine – something higher and more sublime than any other relationship – love that exceeds even the love of young lovers, forgiveness, when required, that exceeds that of any merciful court, and generosity that exceeds that of any philanthropist.
Most remarkably, the greatest lesson in the sidra, that points towards how one embarks upon a journey and ensures that it ends successfully – is found within Jacob’s name – in Hebrew it is Yaakov – as Rashi points out in his commentary – it relates to the Hebrew word ekev, which means a heel.
קָרָא לוֹ יַעֲקֹב עַל שֵׁם אֲחִיזַת הֶעָקֵב
His father called him Jacob because he was grasping Esau’s heel.
So it is that every journey that any of us make begins slowly by placing one’s heel to the ground.
It was Rabbi Sacks who, in writing a commentary entitled Thinking Fast and Slow, drew on the characters of Jacob and Esau to make his point.
This vignette of Esau’s impetuosity – selling part of his heritage for the sake of a bowl of soup – is reinforced by the unique description of the action in the staccato form of five consecutive verbs (literally, “he ate, he drank, he rose, he left, he despised”). Every time we see Esau we have the impression of an impulsive figure always driven by the emotion of the moment, be it hunger, filial devotion, a desire for revenge or, at last, generosity of spirit.
Jacob is the opposite. He does not give way to his feelings. He acts and thinks long-term. That is what he does when he seizes the opportunity to buy Esau’s birthright, when he works for seven years for Rachel (a period that “seemed to him but a few days”), and when he fixes terms with Laban for payment for his labour. Rebuking his son Joseph for the seeming presumptuousness of his dreams, the Torah tells us that the brothers were jealous of Joseph “but his father kept the matter in mind.” Jacob never acts impulsively. He thinks long and hard before deciding.
Along similar lines, the Rambam teaches in the Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed, III: 32) that there is no such thing as sudden, drastic, revolutionary change in the world we inhabit. Trees take time to grow. The seasons shade imperceptibly into one another. Day fades into night. Processes take time, and there are no shortcuts.
So it is that the journey of a Bar Mitzvah boy begins today – but it will not end for many years. Every step that you take should be carefully planned, just as when we walk, we look where we are walking. How many times did your parents say to you when you were younger – don’t rush, you might trip.
Our journey through life is the same – make friends slowly and carefully – choose well and they will be friends for life; learn carefully and slowly – choose well your subjects and they will be friends for life; and in your Jewish and moral choices, go carefully, choose wisely and these choices will accompany you throughout your life.
And to a Chatan and Kallah – a bride and groom – I can say the same.
You will, I am confident, have a wonderful wedding next week – and we are looking forward to celebrating with you on the day – but to have a wonderful marriage – is something different, it is one step at a time; sharing, caring, loving – being there for each other – when no one else is around – and it’s a slow process – but with God’s blessing the two of you will slowly but surely turn your wedding day into a sweet marriage of many days, then of weeks and months, and finally years and decades.
Like Parshat Vayetze I can describe it to you in a few words, in less than a few seconds – but for you to achieve this – you must be kind and thoughtful and generous to each other every single day for the rest of time.
This is the meaning behind Vayetze and this is why today we are so thrilled to be able to wish these very special families mazal and brocho for all the years ahead.
Mazal Tov and Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Freedman