We Try To Make The World Around Us A Little More G-dly Every Single Day [Parshat Vayeitzei By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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“Oh, what a tangled web we weave…when first we practice to deceive” – Walter Scott

And Jacob left Be’ersheva, and he went to Haran … and he lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head — Gen 28:10/11

Our parsha this week begins with the Patriarch Yaakov (Jacob) en route to Haran (in modern-day Turkey) fleeing a vengeful Esav (Esau). The first thing we hear about his travels is when the sun sets and Yaakov lays himself down to sleep. Out in the open, and without a modern, portable tent, he makes a ring of stones around his head and falls fast asleep, to dream of ladders, angels and Divine Blessing.

Something seems a little strange here. Surely if you were to sleep out in the open desert you would want more protection than a few stones around your head? Yet for Yaakov this suffices, leaving us to question why. Why only his head? What would protect the rest of his body?

Later in the parsha we find out who Yaakov is going to spend the next twenty years with … his uncle Lavan (Laban). In stark contrast to his sister Rivkah, and his brother in law, Yitzchak, Lavan is a particularly predatory and manipulative character. You can almost see the gleam in his eyes as his innocent and spiritual nephew comes to stay, eager to help, and eager to please.

They tell the story of an office party where the boss is telling jokes to the entire staff.  Everybody laughs uproariously as each punch line is reached, except for one girl.

“What’s the matter?” grumbled the boss. “Haven’t you got a sense of  humour?”

“I don’t have to laugh,” she replied. “I’m leaving on Friday.”

Not all bosses are fun to be around, and Lavan was one such example, despite being Yaakov’s uncle. When Yaakov expresses his desire to marry the beautiful Rachel, Lavan is delighted to “exchange” her for seven years of shepherding, night and day, rain or shine. When the seven years are up Lavan tricks Yaakov into marrying the wrong woman, Rachel’s older sister Leah. Yaakov has no choice but to marry both women, and must work another seven years as a result.

When it came to business dealings Lavan was also a slippery customer and tried to deny Yaakov his remuneration, constantly changing the terms. Lies, deception and exploitation were things Lavan excelled at, and Yaakov spent twenty years under his watchful eye. Idol worship was also something Lavan took part in proudly, adding insult to injury.

How was Yaakov able to deal with people like that?  What was his secret?

Maybe the answer lies in those stones he placed around his head as he began his journey out of the Holy Land. The head is the control room for the rest of the body. If the head is in the right place, i.e. it has the right perspective on life, then the rest of the body (the heart) will follow along. Yaakov knew he was leaving the sacred Land of Israel and the warmth, love and pure honesty of his father’s home. His travels would take him to places of darkness and deception, and he needed to fortify himself against being influenced and indoctrinated there … so he surrounded his head with stones. These symbolized his decision to keep his mind and intellect protected from negative influences.  His body was travelling to Haran, but his soul would stay connected to G-d.

Sure enough, throughout his two decades in Haran, he remained spiritually unscathed, remaining as spiritual and honest as the day he arrived. He never allowed himself to sink to Lavan’s level, always keeping the moral high ground, regardless of the deception around him.

Every day we leave the shelter of our homes and enter the world around us. Often the contrast is immense: In our homes we have traditional Jewish values and Jewish artifacts … mezuzottefillinShabbat candles, siddurim and machzorim. The pictures of our parents and grandparents remind us where we came from and what we strive towards; the charity box doesn’t let us forget those less fortunate. Then we step outside into a world of very different values, a world where work comes before family and success and power replace spiritual fulfilment. We enter a world where a man’s worth is measured by how much he collects rather than by how much he gives away, and where modesty has been discarded at the foot of towering billboards vying with each other to catch your eye, and open your wallet.

The lesson from Yaakov is simple.  Before we step out of our homes every morning we should surround ourselves with a “ring of stones,” — a reminder of where we came from. Before we leave home, we say the morning prayers, we lay tefillin, we give charity and, if we have time, we study some Torah. The final action we do as we head out into the world is to kiss the mezuzah at the entrance, making sure that we take into the street some of our passion and inspiration so that, instead of being distracted, we try to make the world around us a little more G-dly every single day.  Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.




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