The presence of God helps keep us honest

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Vayetzei 5766
Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Hosea 12:13 – 14:10

High school yearbooks across this country lie stashed away in boxes and on back bookshelves, replete with messages from friends promising to “keep in touch” and “never let our friendship down.” In time, contact often wanes and the moment at which old friends meet up is tinged with an awkward need to explain the years that went without checking in with each other.

This week’s Torah portion begins with Jacob’s flight from his infuriated older brother. Along the way, he stops to rest. He dreams a vision of angels, ascending and descending a ladder that reaches from the earth to the heavens. This image is accompanied by HaShem’s voice, offering him assurances that he will be watched over and return safely to his homeland. Jacob awakens with a start from his dream, not knowing that it is the last time he will hear from HaShem for years to come.

More than two decades later, near the close of the reading, Jacob works through a complicated compensation arrangement with his father-in-law and employer, Lavan. The terms of that arrangement dictate that Jacob will receive those sheep born with particular patterns of coloration on them, and so he engages himself in an intense process that yields the desired patterns and maximizes his wages.

Suddenly, without any warning or introduction, HaShem appears to him and directs him to head back home to Israel. Why now? After more than 20 years without contact, what prompts this sudden directive?

There is an illuminating Chassidic story that may shed light on why HaShem returns to speak with Jacob after all these years. It is the story of a poor man who begged his rabbi for a blessing that he become rich. The rabbi obliged, and in time the once poor man became quite wealthy. At first, the man was very charitable with his newfound gain. However, in time, he began to see the paupers who came to him as a burden. He turned away all who knocked at his door, and even posted a guard at his gate to keep poor people out.

The rabbi heard of his change in attitude, and set out to speak with the miser whom he had once blessed. He talked the guard into letting him meet the master of the house for just one minute and entered the house.

“What are you doing here?” barked the host.

“I would like to ask you a simple set of questions, and then I will go,” replied the rabbi. He pointed out the window. “What do you see there?” he asked.

“People,” replied the miser angrily.

Then the rabbi held up a mirror. “What do you see now?” the rabbi asked.

The miser responded, “Me. What is your point?”

The rabbi explained, “Both the window and the mirror are made of glass. The only difference between the two is a thin coating of silver. Sometimes, where you used to see everyone else, a little bit of silver can make you only see yourself.”

Rabbi Joseph Lookstein once observed that upon leaving his parents’ home, Jacob’s thoughts were of angels. Yet 20 years later, he has become a man whose intensity of focus is upon garnering a larger flock. The eyes that once saw ladders extending to heaven now see only the sheep in front of them.

This may be the reason that HaShem returns to him so suddenly — to keep him from becoming a wholly different person from the spiritual seeker who fled Israel so many years before. Through the decades, Jacob was left alone to work hard and raise his large family while watched from above by his divine guardian. But this final episode marked a change in focus, one that HaShem would not witness silently. Silver befitted Jacob, but not as a coating on the windows through which he saw the world.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Oakland’s Orthodox Beth Jacob. He can be reached at [email protected].