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Parashat Vayetze 5776 — 11/21/2015

Parashat Vayetze 5776 — 11/21/2015

Bereishit  28:10-32:3

Our parashah is entitled VaYetze / He [Yaakov] went out.  R. Steinsaltz points out that Yaakov was “going out” in more ways than one:

We can safely assume that, once he leaves, Jacob is immediately struck by the acute sense that the outside world is different from his former home.  Home was full of holiness and all sorts of good things, whereas the world outside is bleak and spiritually barren.

   A person can go for years interacting only with the Jews who share his bubble, those who are in his close circle, in  his place or in his group.  … When one goes outside, however, and meets people who have never spent time in the house of study of Shem and Ever, nor visited the home of Isaac and Rebecca, he finds a world that is completely foreign to him.  It is a world that does not understand the first thing about what motivates him in life – what he wants, what he aspires to, what guides him, and what agitates him.

R. Steinsaltz continues:

Parashat Vayetzeh is not just the weekly Torah portion, and the problems that arise in it are not Jacob’s alone.  This is the parasha of our era, of our age. … This is the parasha in which we have been living during the last few generations, in the sense that we have suddenly been thrust into the world around us, forced to deal with the ramifications of this new interaction.

The last few generations to which R. Steinsaltz refers are the generations since the ghetto walls in Europe have come down.  While the ghetto was confining, it did give the Jewish community an opportunity to turn inward with much less interference from the outside world.  We didn’t have to deal with the assimilationist pressures that we now deal with.  The Jewish communities were allowed to be more or less self-governing under Rabbinic leadership.  There were, of course, pressures, and it is hard to say that the life in the shtetlach was “pure Jewish life,” if such a concept can even be defined.  But it was a life that we created for ourselves within the boundaries we were given, and based on traditional customs and received texts.

Nowadays, of course, there are no ghettos for us to hide in.  We are, like it or not, out in the open.  Even the insular communities, who consciously try to form their own ghettos, either physically or culturally, cannot help but interact with the outside world.  From this physicist’s perspective, this openness is both inevitable and salutary.  First, no system is truly a closed system.  There is no perfect insulation in the world.  However we define a system’s boundaries, there is going to be an “outside” and there will be a flow of energy and/or matter across those boundaries.  This flow of energy and matter, if it is large enough, moves the system away from thermodynamic equilibrium (where entropy, or disorder, is maximum) and, if strong enough, allows the system to make transitions to more organized states.  This is the process of evolution.  In fact, a system has only two choices – evolution or stagnation and death.

I would like to switch gears a little bit here and discuss Yaakov’s “going out” as a paradigm for the experience each one of us has in our own personal evolution.  As we have often discussed, our tradition tells us that human beings are a composite of body and soul.  The soul is a “piece of the Divine from Above,” that is, its essential nature is infinite.  However, in order for that infinite value to become infused into the finite, material world, the soul must inhabit a material body.  The “downward” pull of the body – that is, its desire for physical pleasures and sensations – provides the challenges the soul has to face, but also provides the mechanism by which the soul can work these challenges out.  In any event, the soul has to “go out” of its home in the realm of the infinite to deal with the Lavan’s of the material world.

And the material world is completely, radically different from the world of the infinite.  On is infinite, the other is finite.  One is perfect, the other needs perfecting.  One is Truth, unchanging, and the other is ever-changing, a mixture of truth and falsehood.  One is real and genuine, the other is like Lavan – trickery, where nothing is as it seems.  And just as Ya’akov’s only hope of survival in this often-hostile world is to remain connected to the faith and values he learned at home, so the only hope for the soul to survive its sojourn in the material world unscathed is to maintain its connection to its own infinite nature.  One might argue that the whole purpose of the prayers and rituals of our tradition is just to maintain this connection.

I’d like to take this idea one step further.  On the individual level we are a soul in a body.  On the cosmic level, Gd has been described as the “soul of the world.”  Gd is the infinite basis of everything, and one of Gd’s Names in Hebrew is haMakom, “the Place,” for Gd is the “place” of the world – the cosmos exists within Gd.  But in the same way that the soul is completely different from the body, so Gd is completely different from the material world.  In some sense we can perhaps so that Gd Himself had to “go out” of His splendid isolation and create a material world in which to display all the qualities and attributes that are inherent, yet unmanifest, within Him.  And yet, the world He created is unredeemed.  It is  full of Lavans.  Even Ya’akov’s descendents (that’d be us) have let Him down.  Our Rabbis say that the Shechinah (Gd’s Presence in the world) is “in exile” as long as the Redemption has not come.

“Going out” is the paradigm of the process of creation, growth and evolution.  But it requires a corresponding “coming back” – t’shuvah / Return – to be complete.  It is up to us to complete the cycle of going out and returning in our individual lives, and by doing so, as it were, redeem Gd Himself!

Haftarah: Hosea 11:7-14:10

(Note that Ashkenazim and Sephardim have different traditional starting and ending points for this Haftarah.  The verses given above include both traditions.)

When they came to their pasture and were satiated, they were satiated and their heart became haughty, therefore they forgot Me. (13:6)

Return O Israel to Hashem, for you have stumbled through your iniquity.  (14:2) (Artscroll translation)

The first verse outlines the same conundrum that appears in Torah:

My strength and the power of my hands [i.e. my own effort] have created all this wealth… (Deut 8:17)

Yeshurun grew fat and kicked … they abandoned the Gd who made them … (Deut 32:15)

When our awareness becomes detached from the infinite source of our life, then it is attracted by the alluring finite values that are to be had in the material world.  Unfortunately, a fixation on the material diverts our attention from our spiritual nature, and leads us to believe that we are independent, free-standing beings.  This of course could not be further from the truth.  We all exist as impulses of the infinite; we are connected to the infinite and through it to every other created being in the cosmos.  This mistaken notion that we are all isolated from one another leads to all kinds of wrong behavior, as we begin to perceive the cosmos in limited terms, as a zero-sum game.  Gd, the infinite source of all goodness, is hidden, or forgotten, depending on our perspective.  There is, however, a way out of this conundrum.  We must “return” (t’shuvah) to Gd, reconnect ourselves with the infinite.  With our perspective rectified in this way, our actions will not be driven by greed, nor by fear of lack, for we will have an open pipeline to the infinite.  There will be no need to stumble any more.