This week’s Torah portion is Vayetze, Genesis 28:10-32:3.
I always think of this time of year as a time of transition. The trees are almost finished shedding their leaves and the air is charged with the smell of the upcoming winter. We ourselves are transitioning from the vestiges of the High Holiday season of teshuva and gratitude to the modern world’s all too long season of consumption.
In Vayetze, we read of the famous Jacob’s Ladder and Jacob receiving God’s blessing. He vows his loyalty and faith to God, “…. If God will be with me … and gives me bread to eat, and clothing to put on … then shall the Lord be my God” (Genesis 28:20-21).
While Jacob could have asked for anything, he asks only for bread and clothing. Radak, a 12th century commentator, wrote that Jacob asked only for the bare necessities. He didn’t even ask for water because one can find water to drink on (and in) the earth.
The Kli Yakar, a 16th century commentator, puts it even more starkly, saying that Jacob asked for the essentials, no more and no less.
The parsha’s message is remarkably relevant for this time of year. We have entered into the season of consumption. Do we really need all that we buy, all that we own?
I look around my house. The mass of possessions makes me feel spiritually and creatively stifled as well as embarrassed. Who am I to require so much stuff? Proverbs 30:8 states “… give me neither poverty nor wealth, provide me my allotted bread …” This implies that all we need are the basic necessities — lest we are so deprived that we resort to theft and so sated that we forsake God.
For some, Jacob’s request of bread and clothing may seem like too little in a world filled with so much and with people who have so much ambition. The Sages also recognized the simplicity of this request and instructs us to translate the word bread to mean Torah (Breisheit Rabbah). There is no stinginess in considering the Torah as a bare necessity of life; it signifies depth and largesse for our souls.
Each morning in Shacharit we recite the following prayer, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all the worlds, who acts for all my needs.” The Sages would recite this prayer as they were putting on their shoes. Shoes were made of leather and therefore a luxury. Today, one could argue that in our world, shoes are a necessity, and if a luxury, then a low-level one. But while we live in a time of perceived plenty and invented want, there are many people who don’t have enough bread to eat or the money for sufficient clothing.
Let us take Jacob’s example and realign our lives. Let us be content with the material basics and aspire to spiritual riches. Let us turn this season of consumption into what our lives and time are meant to represent — generosity and caring.
Questions for discussion
The giving of gifts during Chanukah is a modern tradition. Have you considered dedicating some part of Chanukah to giving away of things as opposed receiving things?
If you were Jacob, what would your vow (or perhaps bargain) of faith with God look like? See Genesis 28 for inspiration.
Arlene Berger is the rabbi of Olney Kehila and the interim rabbi of the Riderwood Community in Silver Spring.