This week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), is overflowing with people, events, flocks, wooden rods and stones. Following the stones – which are solid building material – I want to select a few points from the portion that shed light on community building.
Beginning at the end: the stone monuments that Laban and Jacob set-up to mark the border between them are an example of how not to build a partnership. After a promising start, the relationship between the two turns sour when Laban replaces Rachel with Leah and then justifies himself “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older” (Gen. 28:26). With all due respect to local custom, the challenge hardly could have arisen overnight. In the seven years that Laban and Jacob worked together, there surely must have been opportunities to discuss the matter. But Laban didn’t do it; apparently he didn’t consider Jacob someone he could talk to, and preferred to create facts on the ground behind Jacob’s back. The situation never improves. After Jacob creates his own facts with his tricky breeding tactics, he escapes with his family and flocks under cover of night. When Laban catches up with him, Jacob brings up a long list of previously unmentioned complaints. Jacob and Laban never learned to speak with each other honestly. There are some ancestral examples we should not follow. The stones marking the border are witnesses to the damage done by letting affronts stew for too long.
Moving back in time, to the first day Jacob arrived in Harran, we reach the well where the flocks are watered. It was covered by a large stone and the local shepherds refused to move it before the appointed time. It is unclear whether they are physically unable or bound by a deeply-rooted custom. Either way, Jacob moved the stone by himself. His determination overcame the hurdles. The founders of the congregation and other active members can certainly testify that determination and tenacity needed to build a community.
Another step back in time, to the beginning of the portion. Jacob left Be’er Sheva without any supplies. Therefore, when night falls he has no choice but to manage with the resources available in the field. Stones. Sometimes, especially when acting rashly, one must make due with whatever is at hand. On a more homiletical level, the stones can represent the emotional baggage Jacob is carrying. He can escape danger, and focus on the challenges of the road during the day but at night, alone in the dark, he has no choice but to lie down with the guilt of deceiving his father and cheating his brother, worry about his elderly parents and fear of the unknown.
And then: “He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky” (Gen. 28:12). The Eternal appeared above it/him, and promised to remain with Jacob on his journey, and bring him back home, but not immediately. Even with the blessing of Abraham “in his pocket” Jacob must pay the price for his deceptions. In addition to expressing wonder “How awesome is this place!” (Gen. 28:17), Jacob has some very prosaic requests, for food and clothing. Despite the commentators, like R. Don Isaac Abarbanel, who question how Jacob could make such a lowly deal with God, the Torah itself express no Divine reservations about his vow. There are things that humans need, and there is nothing wrong with that.
A congregation/community should be a place where people can bring themselves and their needs, be heard and receive an appropriate response.
On an early page in Siddur Veani Tefillati (and Sim Shalom), there is formative section from the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 14a):
Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina: What is the meaning of the verse: “After the Lord your God shall you walk” (Deuteronomy 13:5)? Is it actually possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? Rather, it means that one should follow the attributes of the Holy Blessed One:
- Because God clothes the naked... you clothe the naked.
- God visits the sick .... You visit the sick.
- God comforted mourners .... You comfort mourners
If we have the wisdom to build a congregation/community characterized by honest speech and attentive listening, determination and tenacity, and acts of חסד loving kindness within the community and beyond, then this congregation could become a place that moves observers to declare: “Surely the Eternal is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16).
Kehillat Hod veHadar 5778