Imagine you’ve just instigated a huge shift in your known universe: having followed the instruction of one parent to dupe the other and steal something of importance from your sibling, you’ve now fled your home and community in search of a new life. You’re alone, on the run, in the midst of a vast wilderness. You stop for the night to rest your head and your weary body; in your slumber, God and God’s angels appears before you, ascending and descending a ladder to the heavens. As you dream God speaks to you, promising God’s allegiance, responsibility and care as you continue to navigate this uncertain road to your future.
Pretty intense, right?
That’s exactly what takes place at the beginning of this week’s parsha, Vayetzei. Our protagonist is Jacob, the man who has just fled his father’s home with a “stolen” birthright, leaving behind an ostensibly furious brother Esau and conflicted mother Rebecca. Jacob heads in the direction of Haran. There he will meet his beloved Rachel, marry her sister Leah, father multiple children and give rise to our Twelve Tribes – but not without another act of deception, this time at the hand of Laban, father of the two women.
Essentially, Jacob emerges from chaos and heads towards chaos. Leaving behind one fragmented family, he finds himself heading toward another. Jacob perseveres in spite of the tumultuous narrative, but it is clear throughout Vayetzei that even as he celebrates marriages and the births of his children, Jacob is a refugee. He is never quite at home in Laban’s house. While he has fled the painful reality he and his mother instigated, I believe he lives with fear lurking in the darkest corners of his mind that his athletic, impulsive brother might one day come after him. Throughout Vayetzei one might wonder: is Jacob, our forefather, really safe?
Today’s global refugee crisis is all too similar to Jacob’s plight. Having fled their homes and known communities, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are currently taking extreme measures to seek out new lives in Europe and elsewhere. Now, in the aftermath of the devastating terrorist attacks in Paris this past Friday, many of those refugees are finding gates and borders closed to them; a world that is too afraid, too paralyzed by fear and uncertainty to protect and shelter these vulnerable individuals. The situation itself may be far more complex than Jacob’s plight. However – at the core of Jacob’s story is his (and his mother’s) desire to secure a future. Particularly as we head into the holiday season and consider how we might use our resources to help protect and care for these unprotected and landless souls, let us remember what God speaks to Jacob in the midst of his dream in the wilderness: “And here I am, with you. I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15)
Wherever home may be, or wherever one may find themselves in the midst of extraordinary change, let us remember those powerful words.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen