A few years ago, my mother moved out of the family home where my brothers and I were raised. After 45 years, every inch of that house is plastered with memory.
As I walked through my parent’s home for the last time, other transitional moments pierced my consciousness: going to sleepaway camp, packing for college and moving out to New York for my career as a rabbi.
In many ways, Judaism is associated with life changes. Leaving our parents’ home is not just a milestone in our personal lives, but also the cornerstone of our shared Jewish story.
In fact, the first step in Abraham’s daunting journey towards the Land of Israel is through his father’s front door. While Abraham is famously associated with the command of “Lech Lecha” (Gen. 12:1), which essentially means “get up and go,” two generations later, his grandson Jacob leaves home with his mother’s urging: “Berach Lecha” (Gen. 27:43), or “flee!”
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitze, Jacob is on the run. Having tricked his father and brother with his intellectual acuity to secure the family’s birthright, Jacob must flee his parent’s home, birthplace and country. With an inverted trajectory from that of Abraham, our third patriarch leaves Be’er Sheva for Haran, where he will start his own family before returning to Israel one day.
Embarking on a journey is radically different from fleeing. A “Lech Lecha” experience suggests the opportunity to tie up loose ends and at least pack for the journey ahead. Fleeing, however, connotes not only limited time, but a sense of peril.
When Abraham receives the call from God, he sets off for a new life with his wife, nephew, belongings and even a community in tow. The promise of what awaits them, we can imagine, makes any bump along the way worth it.
By contrast, Jacob leaves alone, seemingly empty-handed. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch asserts that Jacob, “owing to the circumstances, took nothing with him at all. He left everything for his elder brother, to prove to him that in taking the birthright he was not seeking any material advantage.” This explanation paints a picture of a righteous runaway without even a knapsack. And yet, let us consider for a moment that Jacob has everything he needs –not only for his future, but our own.
When leaving home for the last time, how does one decide what to keep and what to discard?
When I visited my mother and stepfather before their impending move, I had four hours to go through my childhood room and decide what to take with me. In order to make sense of the clutter, I employed a system I call “heirlooms and souvenirs.” Souvenirs are mementos of experiences – concert t-shirts, political bumper stickers, ticket stubs, refrigerator magnets and trinkets, most of which will eventually be discarded.
Heirlooms are what we take with us forever, for ourselves and the next generations. That day I took my father’s books with his specialized bookmarks still in place, family photos from Lithuania and Russia and letters my mother wrote in 1979 when my parents visited Egypt and Israel.
The most important heirloom, though, was something intangible, namely an enduring passion for Jewish learning and Jewish life.
Heirlooms are what we take with us forever, for ourselves and the next generations.
While it appears that Jacob left with nothing but the shirt on his back, he, too, brought with him an invaluable heirloom. Immediately before Jacob’s departure, Isaac bestows upon him the blessing of Abraham: “May Almighty God bless you, make you fruitful and make you numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May God grant you the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring, that you may possess the land of your sojourns that God gave to Abraham.” (Gen. 28:3-4) The blessing of Abraham is as much a birthright as a beacon illuminating the path ahead.
As we commemorate Kristallnacht this week, I am reminded of a story about Elie Wiesel. He was once asked, “If your house was on fire, what would you take with you?”
Wiesel’s astonishing response was, “I’d take the fire.” To him, fire represents passion, creativity and courage in the face of challenge and change.
To the naked eye, it appears that Jacob embarks alone on a life-changing journey empty-handed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jacob takes his father and mother’s fire. Jacob comes to realize that the blessing of Abraham, despite the challenges associated with it, is itself a precious heirloom that will shape how his family faces life today and for all time. History shows that this covenant has guided and inspired our people through the darkest moments and our greatest achievements.
As left my parents’ home for the last time, I was filled with gratitude that the precious heirlooms I received from my mother and father can be traced back to the blessing of Abraham and Jacob’s journeys.
Rabbi Charles E. Savenor serves as the Director of Congregational Education at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.
Friday, November 12, 2021
Kislev 8, 5782
Light candles at 4:22 p.m.
Torah Reading: Vayeitzei: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:14
Shabbat ends 5:22 p.m.