Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mouth of the Well / Parshat Vayeitzei 2016-5777

How do you live in difficult or frightening times? That’s a question I’ve heard frequently in the past few weeks, coming from the mouths of people who are deeply troubled and apprehensive about the future and who sense that the country is dangerously divided—socially, economically, racially, and politically. Clearly, not everyone shares this sentiment, but the precipitous rise in racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic incidents around the country in the past month[1] should give all decent people pause for concern, regardless of their political proclivities. Beyond our borders, with nine countries in the nuclear weapons club (and Iran working feverishly to gain admission); ISIS continuing to wreak havoc on the lives of millions and precipitating the worst refugee crisis in decades[2]; a score of unstable, simmering hot spots including Yemen, Libya, Myanmar, North Korea, and Ukraine that could erupt at any time; and indeed the entire planet becoming one, big hot spot,[3] it is challenging to keep a cool head and level outlook. As many have noted, with a president-elect who knows little about foreign affairs,[4] less about diplomacy,[5] and doesn’t believe in science,[6] many find cause to be anxious. Does Torah have wisdom for us at a time like this?

This week’s parashah, Vayeitzei, begins by recounting Jacob’s leave-taking from his family, his arrival in Beer-sheba on his way to Haran, and his famous dream of the ladder. When Jacob awakes from his dream—having seen angels ascending and descending on the ladder and God standing at his side—he proclaims, Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” Shaken, he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, which is the gateway to heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-17) In Jacob’s words, we find our first piece of advice: Recall that this place—every place—is the abode of God, a gateway to heaven. God is present everywhere, in everyone, regardless of how they voted, regardless of what policies or politics they pursue. The rampant demonization of the “Other” that has marked the recent campaign, and which is an on-going feature of xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism here in the United States and abroad, threatens the moral fiber of Western society. Rejecting demonization begins not with an “Other,” but with each of us. Those who hold differing views (be they radically red, blisteringly blue, or whatever hue offends you) share this earthly abode-of-God with us and with this country we hold dear. We must understand each other and that requires building bridges for communication. Remember what your mother told you about why God gave you two ears and one mouth?[7] I’m quite sure I rolled my eyes and said, “Yeah, yeah…” but now is the time to put it to action.

A second helpful lessons comes from the hasidic sage, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, who explained the very next passage in our parashah:

Jacob resumed his journey and came to the land of the Easterners. There before his eyes was a well in the open. Three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled from the mouth of the well and the sheep watered; then the stone would be put back in its place on the mouth of the well. (Genesis 29:1-3)

Levi Yitzhak explains in Kedushat Levi:
The verses can be interpreted this way: We know that the Holy One always longs to have goodness flow upon God’s people Israel It is the evil urge that impedes this flow. But when Israel are surrounded in joy, their happiness defeats those “outside” forces, and God’s grace and compassion bring forth blessing. This is: There before his eyes was a wellthat is the flow of God’s blessing. In the open—refers to the “holy field of apples trees [understood to mean the Shekhinah]”—this indicates God’s own great joy in giving [blessing]. Three flocks of sheep—refers to the three festivals of pilgrimage in the year [Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot]. The large stoneis the evil urge, which is called a “stone,” as in “if it is a stone, let it crumble” (BT Kiddushin 30b). On the mouth of the well—preventing the flow of God’s blessing. All the flocks were gathered there—refers to Israel, assembled together to celebrate the pilgrimage festival, amid great joy. The stone would be rolled from the mouth of the well—pushing aside the evil one and all his host, stopping them from holding back the flow. Then blessing and goodness can pour forth upon Israel…

Life is supposed to be a continuous blessing flowing from heaven to earth, as water continuously flows over a waterfall, or flows through an underground stream into a well. The well is a gathering place, a source of mayyim chayyim (life-giving water)—a place of community. It exists to provide water for all living creatures in need—people and animals alike—where those who gather can assist one another. Our yetzer ra (evil urge, or inclination) stops the flow, just as the stone stopped the mouth of the well, cutting off the flow of blessing. We stop the flow of blessing when we give in to the yetzer ra, when we act out of hatred and jealousy rather than love and compassion, when we demonize others rather than seek to help them, when we operate out of selfishness rather than with generosity.

Jacob and Rachel at the Well, by Pedro Orrente
But how do we roll the stone of the yetzer ra away from the mouth of the well to let divine blessing flow? Levi Yitzhak’s interpretation continues, commenting on Genesis 29:10[8]: “When Jacob saw Rachel, refers to the joy of bridegroom and bride, paralleling the joy of the festival.” Joy is our greatest tool for defeating pessimism, doubt, fear, and hatred. How that could be, you may wonder? Perhaps you think this sounds simplistic and naive, but it is far from either.

Our lives are filled with experiences both good and bad: love and rejection, loyalty and betrayal, happiness and sadness, triumph and failure, confidence and insecurity, strength and weakness, pain and pleasure. If you think for a moment, you can surely pull up personal examples of each from memory. We cannot know the future. Nonetheless, we are inclined either toward optimism or pessimism. Which inclination has much to do with which memories we privilege and how we interpret them. If we privilege memories of happiness, we expect happiness in the future. If we privilege memories of suffering, we expect a future marred by suffering. Therefore, in a sense, pleasure begets pleasure, and pain begets pain. What we focus on not only reinforces specific memories, but shapes our expectations and molds our character. Levi Yitzhak wants us to privilege joy in our lives—seek it, treasure it, focus on it, and remember it—because by programming ourselves for joy, we will be joyous, our attitude will incline toward optimism, and we will be receptive to blessing. What is more, we will be far more likely to be a blessing to others. With a positive and joyous approach to life, we will be resilient and energized to meet the challenges that lie ahead and to find the will and wherewithal to engage in the issues that concern us most, helping us to live more fully.

Levi Yitzhak’s message is universalistic in tone, but he has a particularistic Jewish message for us, as well: We should look to our traditions and to our community for joy. Our holy days, our traditions, and our community can all be sources of joy if we reach out and embrace them and incorporate them in our lives, removing the rock at the mouth of the well and letting blessing flow into our lives and through us, into the lives of those we love—and the life of the world.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


[2] ISI has displaced more than 3.3 million people in Iraq alone. Millions have fled Syria, headed for Lebanon, Turkey, the Gulf States, and destinations in Europe.
[3] http://climate.nasa.gov/.
[4] He said he would familiarize himself with key facts “when it’s appropriate.” http://time.com/4022603/2016-election-foreign-affairs-international-relations-donald-trump-republican-nomination/.
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/02/world/trump-calls-to-world-leaders.html.
[6] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trump-comments-on-science-are-shockingly-ignorant/.
[7] Just in case your mother or father didn’t share this pithy teaching with you: the reason God gave us two ears and one mouth is because we should listen twice as much as we talk.
[8] And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. (Genesis 29:10)

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