Parshas Vayeitzei (5776)
In this week’s Torah portion, we find our ancestor Jacob running away from his brother, Esau, who is trying to kill him. So he travels to a place called Beth-El, where he experiences a Divine revelation. G-d appears to him and promises to protect him wherever he goes, and to give the Land of Israel to his descendants. Whereupon Jacob takes a vow, saying, "If G-d will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going, will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear ... then this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall become a house of G-d ..." (Genesis 28:21).
The Midrash relates that a gentile once approached a Torah scholar and asked him, "Is that all your great ancestor Jacob can come up with to ask of G-d when he experiences revelation - a little bread and some clothes?" To which the Torah scholar responded, "In reality, what Jacob was asking of G-d was much, much deeper than that. He was asking G-d to give to him and his descendants the Showbread and the Priestly Garments."
[The showbread was freshly baked bread that was placed on the Table of Showbread in the Tabernacle that Moses built in the desert, and the priestly garments were worn by Aaron the High Priest and his descendants when they served in the Tabernacle.]
By now, you're probably scratching your head and echoing the same question that the gentile must have asked next in response to the Torah scholar … "Huh?"
Well, the commentaries explain this strange Midrash as follows: Jacob was just starting out on his “march to destiny” - the destiny of the Jewish people. He was about to build a Jewish family which would become the foundation-stone of the entire Jewish nation. He was full of idealism and lofty goals - the ultimate "man with a mission".
So he asked G-d for the two things that are absolutely vital and crucial for success and fulfillment in any such journey, represented by the Showbread and the Priestly Garments: (1) The freshly baked Showbread was placed on the Table in the Sanctuary on the Sabbath, and miraculously remained fresh the entire week. Jacob asked G-d that the same excitement and energy that we, his descendants, feel at the beginning of a spiritual journey, should not wane and diminish over time, but should always stay fresh. (2) The Priestly Garments are described in the Torah as garments which are used for the priests to serve (l’shareis) in the Sanctuary (See Exodus 28:43). Jacob prayed that his descendants would be able to live lives in which they could "serve" others, never to focus solely on their own needs.
These two ideas – of always maintaining a freshness in our spiritual growth and observances and of focusing our lives on serving others - are recurring themes in Judaism and are especially appropriate to remember during the various Jewish lifecycle events that we go through in life.
As a young boy becomes a Bar-Mitzvah, the message we impart to the child is clear - today you are a man, and as such, you are no longer living only for yourself - you are now part of the team. You have a responsibility to your fellow man, and even more than that, your whole life is to serve others.
Unfortunately, we have somewhat distorted that message these days. In the "olden days" and throughout the centuries and millennia, the main focus of the bar-mitzvah celebration was the boy's public reading of the Torah, in which he would fulfill the adults' obligation to hear the Torah, thereby reminding him of his new role as a Jew whose life is here to serve his people.
But today, we often teach our children the exact opposite lesson. We spend tremendous amounts of money to cater to our child's every whim - if he/she wants a bar/bat mitzvah safari in Kenya or a lavish catered affair on the Goodyear blimp - the sky's the limit! (pun intended).
So what kind of message do our children learn from all this? That it's my bar/bat mitzvah, and the focus of everything is me, me, me! [Don't get me wrong - I'm not knocking the bar/bat mitzvah affair. My parents did it for me, too. You know …. the big “shebang” at the Washington Hotel, the Viennese Table with candy apples and Napoleons, dancing the Hustle and the Alleycat (guess how old I am!). I'm just saying that at such an important milestone in our child's life, it is important to remind him of the real import of his becoming a bar-mitzvah - that he's now joining the Jewish team, and it's now one for all and all for one.]
A Jewish wedding is another perfect example. The Talmud says that it is as difficult for G-d to match two people together as it was for Him to split the Red Sea. One explanation of this strange Talmudic statement is related to the ideas we mentioned earlier. You see, when the Jews crossed the Red Sea and witnessed that unbelievable miracle right in front of their very eyes, it must have made an incredible impact on them. But of course, soon after that was over, the people went back to their old ways, as the excitement and inspiration that they felt earlier had dissipated.
And that's the difficulty of a newlywed couple as well. A Jewish wedding can be a golden opportunity for the new couple to make some meaningful, spiritual changes in their lives, as they embark on their journey of life together. There is so much hope and promise surrounding the new couple. They are starting to build a Jewish home together, just like Jacob did over three thousand years ago. But the danger is that all that promise, all those idealism-filled discussions, will fade over time, as the more mundane aspects of marriage kick in.
May we all merit the fulfillment of the two “small” blessings that our forefather Jacob asked of G-d - that we always remain as fresh in our spiritual commitments as we were when we first started them, and that our focus in life should always be on how we can serve others - as we each march on our own journey to our Jewish destiny.