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Growing the Giving Nature of Love / Graceful Masculinity: Vayeitzei

Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

וַיַּעֲבֹד יַעֲקֹב בְּרָחֵל, שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים; וַיִּהְיוּ בְעֵינָיו כְּיָמִים אֲחָדִים, בְּאַהֲבָתוֹ אֹתָהּ.

Jacob worked seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him a few days because of his love for her.  (Genesis 29:20)

 

There’s a story about a student who is accompanying his rabbi to a restaurant for dinner. After they are seated and have looked over the menu, the rabbi asks, “What would you like to eat?” Still scanning the options, the student responds, “I love fish, so…” The rabbi interrupts by gently lowering the student’s menu, makes eye contact, and corrects him: “If you really love fish, you would let it live out its life peacefully in the water. Instead, you are willing to pay someone to catch it, kill it, dice it, deep fry the pieces, and then you will eat it. You don’t love fish. You love the way eating fish makes you feel.”

Love can be selfish or selfless. We can love another, G-d forbid, for what the person can provide to us — or we can love by trying to offer as much as possible. In Hebrew, the world for “love” is אהבה. It comes from the root הב, which means to give. In the purest kind of love, we seek to better ourselves as a way of making the best possible offering to those we love. 

In our parsha, the Torah testifies that Jacob’s love was for Rachel. Perhaps that is why the seven long years of labor felt like days for him. Moments waiting for a beloved can feel like an eternity, but Jacob was already achieving a sense of closeness in the moment by investing the time to work and refine himself. It is not coincidental that he, like many of our early leaders, was first a shepherd of animals before leading people. Putting the needs of others first isn’t easy, and it took effort to habituate themselves to accommodating the needs of the flock.

The Jerusalem Talmud teaches that we can best learn how to love another by learning to love ourselves and then expanding from there. In Tractate Nedarim, the Talmud explains the connection between the first half of the verse “You shall not seek revenge” with the second half of the verse, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Lev. 19:18) The Jerusalem Talmud presents a parable of a person who accidentally cut their finger while preparing food. Would the wounded hand take the knife and avenge itself by stabbing the hand that cut it? When we understand ourselves as being part of a greater whole, this not only discourages revenge, but it can inspire deep love. We are all commanded to love another the way that we love ourselves, but if we are not aware of the care we need to offer ourselves, we can end up hurting others.

Before we can expand our concern to include others, we need to understand our own needs. The way that we feel about ourselves can teach us how to properly feel for others. We must love ourselves in order to fully love someone else.

This is especially true in our most intimate relationships. Maimonides teaches that I must honor my partner even more than I honor myself and I should love my partner as much as I love myself.1 The source for this is the Babylonian Talmud, but it is noteworthy that the order there is reversed: One must love their partner the way one loves oneself and should honor the partner even more.2 The rabbis explain that Maimonides changes the order because he is offering practical advice on how to cultivate love for another. The first step is understanding and honoring what is important to the other, and making it important to you.

Tradition also acknowledges that desire is natural and powerful, and needs to be harnessed and channeled. The mystics understand the 613 commandments in the Torah as corresponding to 613 parts of our being. The commandment of loving another as we love ourselves is connected to the part of us that experiences desire. Intimate relationships offer the unique opportunity to focus on the needs of another, with as much sensitivity, as if those needs were one’s own. It is for this reason that the Talmud mandates that one see the other before marrying, to make sure there is an attraction. Torah’s imperative to love another as oneself is given as the prooftext.3

Jacob’s love for Rachel is passionate and generous. His work, both internal and external, models how we can find personal nourishment by focusing on the needs of another. G-d wants us to feel loved, and to know that we will never get there by exploiting others. Instead, we reach love through giving love in a healthy way.

 

Discussion questions:

How does the way society uses the word “love” affect our understanding of it?

What are some examples of micro-affections, small positive platonic acts, that we can offer through the day, especially to strangers?

If we feel good when we give and help others, why do we often feel resistance to giving more? 

Is it more helpful to try and apply successful lessons in one’s partnership with G-d to human relationships, or apply lessons from our human relationships to our partnership with G-d?

 


1. וְכֵן צִוּוּ חֲכָמִים שֶׁיִּהְיֶה אָדָם מְכַבֵּד אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ יוֹתֵר מִגּוּפוֹ וְאוֹהֲבָהּ כְּגוּפוֹ.

2. ת”ר האוהב את אשתו כגופו והמכבדה יותר מגופו

3. There are more rational reasons to be attractive to one’s partner, as Maimonides writes: otherwise the partnership could end in graceleness, hate, or divorce. וְלֹא יְקַדֵּשׁ אִשָּׁה עַד שֶׁיִּרְאֶנָּה וְתִהְיֶה כְּשֵׁרָה בְּעֵינָיו שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִּמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינָיו וְנִמְצָא מְגָרְשָׁהּ אוֹ שׁוֹכֵב עִמָּהּ וְהוּא שׂוֹנְאָהּ:

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz. Image from wallpapercave.com.

See other #MenschUp posts here.

Our Two-Story Houses: Becoming Ladders for Spiritual Ascent

IMG_3484

Part of a yearlong series about building and builders inspired by the Torah cycle.

I’m a fan of two-story houses.  I enjoy some separation from the busy “functional” part of the house, while my husband prefers the ease of having “practical” things accessible on one level.  Our new ranch-style home seemed a perfect solution: single-level living with an upstairs perch – a sunny loft, my very own ‘’second story.” I love my little retreat in the sky filled with comfy furniture, books and music.

IMG_3483But I rarely use it myself, and it’s impractical for me to invite others to join me there. Do I love my loft more in theory than in reality, or is getting up there just too much of a challenge to be useful?  The only access to the loft is a heavy ladder that must be wrestled awkwardly into place each time we wish to ascend.

I admit some “ladder envy” when engaging with this week’s Torah portion and the description of Jacob’s iconic vision (Vayeitzei).  If only a mystical staircase would appear to connect the loft to the rest of our house. (While we’re asleep, no less!) And, to dive into Torah’s metaphor of connecting “above” with “below,” if only we all had easy tools for spiritual ascent.

Then again, maybe we do.

The Jacob we encounter this week doesn’t begin in a good place.  He alienated his family and enraged his brother. He flees. As the sun sets and darkness descends, Jacob makes camp: he sets stones to protect his head and lays down for the night.  There he experiences his famous dreamscape vision: the heavens open, a ladder appears and reaches skyward, angels ascend and descend, and the Divine Presence appears at the top. Jacob hears God promise to be with him wherever he goes.  Jacob wakes and affirms God’s presence:

“Surely God was in this place and I did not know it.  How awesome is this place! This is none other than the House of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen. 28:15-17).

IMG_3481Sulam Yaakov

We call it Sulam Yaakov, Jacob’s Ladder, although he himself neither builds it nor climbs it. More accurately, it is God’s ladder – to enlighten Jacob, to awaken him to God’s presence on earth.  Narrowly read, we might think Jacob was shown only an isolated “place” (in Hebrew, makom) where heaven and earth connect.  Indeed, rabbinic tradition makes much of that geographic place, associating it with the Akedah (binding of Isaac), Sinai, the Holy Temples and more.  

But Jacob’s actions the next morning reveal a higher truth.  

The ladder had disappeared and the “real world” remained as it was.  Yet Jacob designates the now seemingly ordinary place as “none other than Beit El” (House of God).  He further vows if God leads and protects Jacob, then Jacob will believe and dedicate himself and his possessions to God’s service (Gen. 28:20-22).

Tradition holds that Jacob’s vow still indicates his “conditional faith,” that he was still trying to bargain and even manipulate just as he had with the family he was fleeing. I offer a different read.

Building and Becoming

Jacob’s words indicate a radical shift in worldview.  Torah’s “trickster” has been humbled. He no longer could believe that what happens “downstairs” is solely his domain.  Rather, he was given to understand that even life’s basics (food, clothing, safety) depend on a Divine Source that is everywhere – in Hebrew, HaMakom (the Place).

What is it exactly that Jacob saw and understood?

Interestingly, the most mundane component of Jacob’s revelation is the clue. The existence of God, heaven and angels didn’t seem to be a surprise, nor should they be.  After all, this was his family’s God: is Jacob not the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, son of Isaac and Rebecca?

What’s news to Jacob is the most ordinary part of the scene – the ladder, “Sulam Yaakov.” Jacob already knew there were two stories: he just needed to make the connection.

Our teaching then comes less from Jacob’s dream than from his twofold response to it: building and becoming.  Jacob didn’t set out to build a scaffold, stairway or tower to the sky (like the Tower of Babel that went so wrong).  Nor did Jacob pray for God to send another ladder when the first one disappeared. Rather, Jacob built a monument, a marker here on Earth, to remind and reconnect. He then vowed to remodel his life; in what he now understood the world to be – God’s place. Emotionally and spiritually, the builder, and the act of building, became the ladder.

“Wonderful story,” my rational mind says.  “What does that mean for me?”

One more hint from the text:

IMG_3485There’s No “I” in Heaven

When Jacob woke and opened his eyes, he expressed astonishment: “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it” – in Hebrew, va’anochi lo yadati.  Rendered in English, the Hebrew reads slightly differently: “… and I, I did not know.”

Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz reads Jacob’s bewilderment radically: “I did not know my I-ness.”  “I did not know” isn’t merely an expression of surprise but a description of what Jacob experienced and an instruction for how to build.  

We come to experience what’s “upstairs” precisely by learning how to not-know our Anochi, our own ego.  As Lord Jonathan Sacks put it, we most experience holiness when we move beyond Self.  We sense the “Thou” of divinity when we move beyond the “I” of egocentricity.  Only as we move beyond our Self do we become truly open to the world and the Creator.

That’s the kind of Judaism we must build – a Judaism that encourages us to serve others, both for their sake and for the sake of moving beyond our own “I-ness.”  Serving others is the way up. Only by working for the greater good, in the house where we already are, can we ourselves become ladders to access “upstairs.”

May we be granted the ability to seek Divinity in every place.  May the call to build inspire us to serve. And may we be blessed with moments of Grace when ego fades (sometimes even despite ourselves) and we see ladders “upstairs” simply appear.

 

BB-new Silbert-small

By Rabbi Bella Bogart; sketchnote by Steve Silbert.