At NFTY-MAR’s Fall Kallah November 16-18, 2018, in Baltimore, MD teens from across the region gathered as a community and spent Shabbat reflecting on gratitude and learning about food insecurity across the United States. The following is a D’var Torah written by Jared Sloan, of Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, North Carolina.
This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.” Hold on to this story, we’ll come back to it in a bit.
This week’s Parsha, Vayeitzei, picks up where we left off last week. Jacob is leaving his home at the urging of his parents after tricking his father into giving him the blessing that belonged to his older brother Esau. After a day of traveling, he comes to an unspecified place to spend the night. During the night he has a dream in which he sees a ladder, with angels ascending and descending it. During this dream, G-d reveals himself to Jacob and says: “your descendents shall be like the dust of the Earth, and you shall spread out to the west and the east and the north and the south. Through you and your descendants all the families of the earth shall find blessing.” In the first part of this quote, we see the world as it is today. The Jewish people are spread all over the world, an interconnected web of history and tradition that binds us together as a people. For me, nowhere was this feeling of connectedness stronger than when I was in Israel this past summer with Mitzvah Corps. Walking around with our group and knowing that most of the people we saw around us were Jewish too was an incredibly special experience. One moment that really stands out from this trip was the day that we went to a nursing home in Tzfat to spend some time with the residents and sing some Jewish songs to them. Now, I’m generally awkward under the best of circumstances, and these were definitely not the best of circumstances. I was about to have to spend time with a bunch of people I had never met before and most of whom spoke no English whatsoever. So it’s safe to say that I was not looking forward to this experience. However, once we actually got there and started singing, most of that melted away. Even though we had no shared language in which to communicate, we were able to share a bond through songs I’ve known for as long as I can remember.
So that’s the first part of the line, what about the rest of it? “Through you and your descendants all the families of the earth shall find blessing.” This promise is very different from that which was made to Abraham, in which G-d promised “I will make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you.” Where Abraham’s covenant was solely focused on his descendants and their glory, the covenant of Jacob looks farther to the impact that his descendants will have on the entire world. So now this leads us to the question of how we, the descendants of Jacob, making up less than half of one percent of the world’s population, can bring blessing to all the families of the earth? If we look to the Torah’s most repeated commandment, I believe we find the answer. At least 36 times, the Torah tells us that we should welcome the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Although none of us were literally slaves in Egypt, we as a people know all too well the pain of oppression. Even though many of us don’t have personal experience with food insecurity, our experiences with other forms of injustice, as well as a cultural memory of oppression, demand that we act against injustice in this world so that we can fulfill the covenant and bring blessing to the families of the Earth because in one way or another, we’ve been there before, and we know the way out.