Hillel Skolnik Senior Sermon
Rabbi Hillel Skolnik
November 10, 2010
Over the past now twenty months and one day since our daughter Dafna was born, people have often times asked me what has been the biggest change in my life. My mind immediately jumps to the fact that I get less sleep than I used to, spend more money on diapers than I used to and the million other aspects of my life that are now completely different. Yet I find myself giving more or less the same answer to anyone who asks me that loaded question. The biggest difference, I say, is that in one moment we went from being responsible only for ourselves to the next being responsible for another human life. One day she’s not there and then there she is and she’s looking to you for everything she needs. That feeling of being completely and totally responsible for her has been the biggest change for me these past twenty months and one day and I know that although the change happened in a blink of an eye, I’ll always feel responsible for her in a way I could never have comprehended before she was born.
It was with these eyes of a young father that I read through this week’s parasha, Parashat Vayeitzei, and quickly noticed that my recognition of the rapid onset of responsibility in my own life is mirrored by the experiences of Yaakov Avinu in this week’s parasha. At its outset, Yaakov is seemingly just a young man who is simultaneously running away from his brother and heading off to Charan to find a wife. Even though the Torah describes him as an Ish Tam Yosheiv Ohalim, a “mild man who stayed in the camp”, Yaakov’s narrative thus far has presented a man who is not afraid to take advantage of an opportunity if it will be to his own benefit. He sold the red stew for the birthright, and participated, albeit at his mother’s behest, in the tricking of Isaac. Whether or not this makes him a good person is an interesting question, but not the one I wish to explore today. What interests me more at the moment is the fact that in both of these cases his actions were done because they would bring benefit to the only person in his life that he had any sense of responsibility towards, namely himself.
In this week’s parasha, however, everything changes. After falling in love with the first woman he meets, Yaakov then, within the span of only 37 verses, goes from being a single man working toward marrying that woman to having two wives, each with a maidservant, eleven sons and one daughter. One day he has only himself to feed and then 37 verses later he finds himself with 16 mouths to feed. While in reality this process surely took some years, to this reader, it happened very quickly. I could not help but see this as a warp speed transition into adulthood, from no responsibility to massive amounts.
What puzzles me about this entire episode is how Yaakov was able to handle it. How does a mild man who stayed in the camp become a person who is capable of being responsible for so many other people? I know how we handle it when we experience a rapid onset of responsibility into our own lives– we get help from parents, family members, friends and members of our community. If we have a question we pick up the phone and call someone. But what did Yaakov do? There were no phones back then. He couldn’t skype with his mother to say that little Reuven has a fever of 101.1 and does she think he should call the doctor. This was a guy who only ever had to worry about his own wellbeing and now finds himself as the head of a large family with everyone looking to him for guidance.
While I have no idea what they did for fevers back then, I do have a thought as to how he handled his new life, but to find it we need to go back to the beginning of this week’s parasha, to the famous incident of Yaakov’s dream. As the story goes, Yaakov was on his journey toward Charan and as the sun was setting he stopped in a certain place for the night. He took a stone, put it under his head, fell asleep and dreamt of a sulam mutzav artzah v’rosho magia hashamayma, v’hinei malachei elohim olim v’yordim bo – of a ladder set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. While much has been said about this fascinating dream, and deservedly so, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the angels of God are said to be olim v’yordim bo – going up and coming down on it.
Rashi notices this phrase and comments by specifying Olim Tchila V’achar Chach Yordim that they are going up first and then afterward coming down. Rashi wants to know why the procession of angels is taking place in this surprising order. One would think that if a ladder is going from Earth to the heavens with angels going in both directions, since angels come from the heavens, they would first need to come down and then go up. So why then does the Torah specifically say that the angels are olim v’yordim bofirst going up and then afterward coming down?
The particular answer that Rashi paraphrases is but one of the many answers offered in Breishit Rabba Parashat Samech Chet Piska Yod Bet and these are the words of Breishit Rabbah. Davar Acher Olim V’yordim Bo – another explanation of they were going up and coming down on it – Olim otam shelivu oto v’eretz yisrael, yordim otam shelivu oto v’chutza laaretz. The ones that were going up were the angels who accompanied Yaakov within the land of Canaan, and the angels that were coming down were those who accompanied him while he was outside the land. In other words, the reason that the ladder held angels that were first going up and then coming down is that this was not, as we might have thought, an introduction of angels into Yaakov’s life. They had been there already for some time and his dream is actually, as James Kugel called it in his book “The Ladder of Jacob”, a changing of the guards. The angels who had been charged with accompanying Yaakov so long as he was within the land of Canaan were about to get a break because Yaakov was leaving the Canaan on his way to Charan. That meant that his “outside of the land” angels were about to be on duty. How were they supposed to get there? They were taking the ladder. But before they could go down, the other angels had to come on back up to heaven.
Professor Kugel would tell you that the problem with this Midrash is that it has geographical issues, namely that the dream was supposed to have taken place in Beit El, otherwise known as Jerusalem. And so how could this changing of the guards from inside Canaan angels to outside Canaan angels happen before Yaakov even made it to the border? Given Professor Kugel’s insight, I would like to offer a different spin on the midrash. I do think that there was indeed a changing of the guard of angels but not one contingent on Yaakov’s location. Instead, the angels ascending the ladder were the ones charged with the responsibility of accompanying Yaakov through the first stages of his life. And now, precisely as he is about to go and find a wife, he requires new angels because a new phase of his life is about to begin. Even though Yaakov may not know it, he is about to enter into adulthood and these new angels are the ones who will guide him through it.
Furthermore, I think that it was his feeling of God’s presence in his life, which he felt through these angels, that helped him survive what can only be described as a rocky entrance into the responsibilities of adulthood. Failing to notice that he spends his first night as a married man with the wrong woman does not exactly qualify Yaakov for the “Most Attentive Husband on a Wedding Night” award, and things do not really get much better. Rachel is barren and becomes bitter toward her fertile sister and as we see throughout Yaakov’s life, family dynamic is a real issue. Surely he could have used someone to talk to, someone to sit down with at the end of the day so that he could just blow off some steam and something tells me that Lavan was not an option. I think that of any of our forefathers, Yaakov could have used a friend. And I think that the purpose of his dream as a whole was to remind him that God is always with him in his life and can be that support system that Yaakov lacked. How could he navigate the waters of four wives at one time? How could he handle the remarkably rapid onset of responsibility, going from being single to having four wives and twelve children within the span of 37 verses? He had the angels. But even more than that, he had the right angels for this part of his life.
Of course it was not only with the eyes of a relatively new father that I read the story of Yaakov’s entrance into adulthood, but also as a budding rabbi, as a person about to experience once again what it means to go through the rapid onset of responsibility. God willing, come next summer, all of us who are graduating both Rabbinical and Cantorial School will find that one day we are responsible for only our own families and then come the next day we are responsible for the spiritual well being of a synagogue, of patients in a hospital, of students or of those people who look to us for guidance as clergy. There will not be a transition period. The responsibility will simply be there and a new stage of our lives will have begun. And I wonder, how will we deal with it?
It is in that moment, that I am almost jealous of Yaakov for always having those angels as a constant reminder of God’s presence in his life, but then I realize that I have it much better than he did. I have a family, so stocked with clergy that it’s crazy, full of people who love me and are there for me with whatever I need to remind me of God’s presence in my life. I have several communities that welcome me with open arms whenever I find myself in their midsts. I have great friends and wonderful classmates who will be going through the process along with me and who will be there for me just as I will be there for them. And I also have Psalm 91 verse 11. Ki Malachav y’tzaveh lach lishmorcha b’chol drachecha “For God will order His angels to guard you wherever you go.” It turns out, God did not send angels to watch over Yaakov just because he was our forefather Yaakov, God sent angels down that ladder because Yaakov was one of God’s creatures. And the even better news is that since we are also God’s creatures we get the same treatment. We might not have a dream to know when a changing of the guard is taking place, but something tells me that at some point next semester my angels of Rabbinical School are going to head back up into the heavens and the angels of my rabbinate will come down.
So what are we to do when our lives suddenly transition from one stage to another, when we find ourselves with a whole new set of responsibilities? We look to the people in our lives for support and realize that they are the angels that God has sent, the ones who are always right for us. And since the birth of our daughter, Dafna, I take comfort in knowing that not only will these angels always be watching over me, but that they will also always be watching over her.