Giving Thanks

Parashat VaYetze 5778

Meir Sendor

Our travels around the States visiting family and teaching Jewish meditation have taken us to New Jersey. We rented a car at the airport. To leave the rental lot you pass by a toll booth where an attendant takes your papers, makes sure everything is in order and opens the exit gate. The woman looked over our papers, opened the gate and said with a big smile and a southern lilt “You have yourselves a blessed day now.” What a lovely thing to say, so simple, yet it makes such a difference. We thanked her and blessed her in return and told her how much we appreciate her spirit. She told us her name is Mary Sunshine, and this is how she was raised, to bring light into the lives of others. Here is a woman who sits in a toll booth all day, taking her limited job as a gatekeeper and turning it into an opportunity for giving blessings. Wonderful!

Rabbi Abba in the Zohar on this week’s parashah notes the way the adventures of Yaakov Avinu outside the Land of Israel are framed at the beginning and end by encounters with angels, but with some striking differences:

[זוהר כרך א (בראשית) פרשת ויצא [דף קמו עמוד ב

 תא חזי כד נפק יעקב למיהך לחרן בלחודוי הוה דלא אינסיב מה כתיב ויפגע במקום וגו’ ולא אתיבו ליה אלא בחלמא השתא דאנסיב והוה אתי בכלהו שבטין כביכול משריין עלאין פגעין ביה ואתחננו ליה דכתיב ויפגעו בו אינון אהדרו למפגע ביה, בקדמיתא איהו ויפגע במקום השתא אינון ויפגעו בו, בגין דבגיניה דיעקב ובאינון שבטין ויפגעו בו, בגין דבגיניה דיעקב ובאינון שבטין אתשקיין אינון ממיא דימא רבא ולא עוד אלא בקדמיתא בלילה בחלמא השתא בחיזו דעינא וביממא הדא הוא דכתיב ויאמר יעקב כאשר ראם מחנה אלהים זה וגו’, במה [דף קסה עמוד ב] אשתמודע לון אלא חמא דאינון הוו אינון דחמא בחלמא בגיני כך קרא לון מחנים משריין דאתחזו לעילא ומשריין דאתחזו לתתא אמאי אתגליאו למפגע ליה אלא שכינתא אזלא לגביה לנטלא לביתיה ומחכא ליה לבנימן לנטלא ביתא עמיה דיעקב כדקא יאות וכדין כתיב ושב יעקב ושקט ושאנן ואין מחריד,

Come and see, when Yaakov left to go to Haran he was alone and not married. What is written? “He came upon the place…,” and he was responded to only in a dream. Now that he is married and has come with all the tribes, as it were the supernal camp meets him and they are gracious to him, as it says “they came upon him,” they go to meet him… And because of Yaakov and these tribes [the angels] are able to drink from the waters of the great Sea. Not only that, but at the beginning it was at night and in a dream, but now it is visible to the eye and in the daytime, as it is written “and Yaakov said when he saw them ‘this is the camp of God.’” How did he know them? He saw that they were the very ones he had seen in his dream. Therefore he called them “double camp” – the angelic camp that was seen above and the angelic camp that is seen below. And why were they revealed to meet him? Because the Shekhinah, the divine Presence, was accompanying him to bring him home and to wait for the birth of Binyamin to make Her home with Yaakov as is appropriate, as it is written “and Yaakov shall return and be silent and calm and none shall frighten him (Jer 30:10).”

Rabbi Abba gives us a comprehensive vision of the parashah and its significance. What has changed, such that at the end of the parshah angels come to meet Yaakov, not the other way around, in the daytime not at night, when he is awake and not in a dream? The difference is that Yaakov now has a family. This family enables the angels themselves to receive blessing – to drink from the “great Sea,” the sefirah Binah, as the Zohar says it. And this even brings the Shekhinah to dwell with them.

But we can press further: why should having a family make the difference? We could say that having a family confers a spiritual gravitas. But we can challenge this. According to Rabbi Yehudah in midrash Bereshit Rabbah (68:11, see Rashi, Gen. 28:9)) Yaakov spent fourteen years studying Torah in the Yeshivah of Ever and only after that does he have his ladder dream and leave the Land for the house of Lavan. What could be more spiritually empowering than the years spent in yeshivah, in total focus on learning Torah? Those who have had this experience often look back on it with fond nostalgia as a purer, simpler, brightly inspired time. By contrast, the process of raising a family in society, for Yaakov and for all of us, is filled with complexity and struggle and pressure and challenges of all kinds. Raising a family would seem to be a distraction from Torah and the spiritual life.

Rabbi Abba in the Zohar says quite the contrary. It is precisely through the challenges and surprises of family and community life that true Torah is fulfilled and true spirituality is attained. In the hothouse of school or yeshivah we learn Torah in theory. In family and community, planted out in the world, we put Torah into practice. We learn to reach beyond ourselves, to act meaningfully. We learn to really love those who are different than us – our spouse, our children, who we discover, however much we are family, we are also unique individuals, each with our own strengths and weaknesses. And we learn to expand our hearts further. We come up against our own limits in the process, and learn to deal with them. These can be limits of personality, limits of health, socio-economic limits, limits in our life circumstances. Our character is tested in how we deal with the givens in our lives and turn them into gifts.

And we learn to be thankful. In the Gemara Berakhot, Rabbi Yochanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף ז עמוד ב

מיום שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את עולמו לא היה אדם שהודה להקדוש ברוך הוא עד שבאתה לאה והודתו, שנאמר הפעם אודה את ה’.

From the day that the Holy One, blessed be He, created His world, no one thanked the Holy One, blessed be He, until Leah came and thanked him, as it says “this time I will thank HaShem (Gen. 29:35).”

Leah, struggling with lack of affection from her husband, is moved to thankfulness for her children. Rachel, struggling with infertility, expands her heart in different ways. This is what Yaakov and his family learn through their adventures, and continue to learn. And it is this learning and the depth of character they attain that confers the spiritual gravitas that brings angels to them. Through this process they, and we, become givers of blessing.

So we are thankful for the gatekeeper who transforms what could be a limited job into an opportunity to give blessings, and reminds us of all the blessings in our lives for which we give thanks. “You have yourselves a blessed day, now!”


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