Venturing into the discomfort zone to encounter God

Vayetze
Genesis 28:10-32:3
Hosea 12:13-14:10

The fourth in her family line to be called Anna, she lived in the old family farmhouse, slept under a quilt sewn by her great-grandmother in a bed built by her great-grandfather, and did things the same way family members had for generations.

In the yard of the family farm grew a very tall, strange and beautiful tree whose blossoms often perfumed the air for miles around. According to family legend, the tree’s seed had been a gift to her great-great-great grandfather by a Gypsy king who promised that the tree’s fruit was magic — anyone who would eat the fruit would have an exciting life filled with adventure and opportunity.

It was a promise not easily fulfilled because its fruits disintegrated instantly when they fell from the tree. Thus, to eat a piece of the tree’s fruit, a person had to actually catch it as it fell. Consequently, no one from Anna’s family ever ate one of the fruits except Anna’s great-uncle Frank, who simply left one day and was never heard from again.

Of course, Anna never believed the story. How could a piece of fruit provide adventure and opportunity? Nevertheless, from her bedroom window Anna watched the ripe fruit that were ready to fall. Thinking about their taste prevented Anna from getting much done. She spent a lot of time under the tree daydreaming, and she even slept under its branches a couple of nights. She studied a way to get to the top of the tree but thought that the fruit probably was not worth all that bother. After all, who in her right mind would want to change a safe, comfortable life for adventure? Although she could not imagine what that might be like, she kept starring at the biggest fruit that looked like it might fall at any moment.

This tale, adapted from A. Klassen’s “The Gypsy King’s Tree,” captures the central theme of Vayetze, this week’s Torah portion: the dilemma of leaving the comfort and security of home for adventure and the unknown. The opening action, “Jacob left Beer-Sheva and set out for Haran” (Gen. 28:10), is a recurring experience for the patriarchs and matriarchs: God commanded Abram, “Lech lecha” — go forth from your native land…” (Gen. 12:1); Terach, Abraham’s father, left Ur for the land of Canaan, but settled in Haran (Gen. 11:31); Rebecca left the comfort of her home to become Isaac’s wife in Canaan (Gen. 24:59); the Israelites left Canaan for Egypt and 400 years later, they fled Egypt and resettled in the land of Israel. Often, the main protagonists in the Torah are either setting out on a journey or arriving at some distant place. These are not routine journeys; they are all part of the central theme of the Bible, an epic search for spiritual truth.

In referring to Jacob’s departure from Beer-Sheva, medieval commentator Rashi observed that when a tzaddik — a righteous person — leaves a place, he has an effect on that place. But more than the mark that he leaves on the place, he also leaves an impression on himself and on those who come after him. After all, it was upon leaving Beer-Sheva that Jacob had the dream of the stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending upon it. Jacob awoke from his sleep and exclaimed, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Gen. 28:16).

It was on that forsaken spot that he received God’s promise: “The ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. … All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants” (Gen. 28: 13-14). Comparably, after Jacob left Laban’s home to return to Canaan, Jacob wrestled with a nighttime phantom spirit and was given a new name, Israel, “for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29).

If leaving the comfort of home is the biblical prerequisite for an encounter with God, and a change of venue is equated with adventure and challenge, students of the Torah would do well to consider venturing forth from the comforts of home into the unknown of the wilderness.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.