Seeing others as an extension of ourselves


By Rabbi Eitan Cooper
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Vayetze,
Genesis 28:10 – 32:3.

Recently, my 4½-year-old son informed me that his “lowlight” of the day was when his friend grabbed his mask and it snapped back onto his face — a minor incident that left a small mark but was ultimately forgotten the next day.

As I consider the plight of those all around us — both in our local community and around the globe — I cannot help but feel blessed by my son’s relatively minor lowlight. He didn’t need much to feel better — a simple conversation and some love did the trick. But so many need so much more.

The list of challenges plaguing our world seems endless. There are the issues that make headlines: Afghan refugees in the tens of thousands and individuals who are still suffering from the effects of the pandemic. And there are the ever-present issues: poverty, homelessness and hunger. On our best days, we may feel motivated and inspired to act and make a difference. And yet, and maybe even especially these days with the weight of the pandemic still felt by so many, our “best days” don’t come along often enough. There are often so many needs in our communities that we cannot help but prioritize ourselves.

How do we balance this tension? How do we, at the same time, think about those around us and also ensure that we take care of our own needs?

This week’s parshah, Vayetze, describes a moment that offers us some insight. When Yaakov (Jacob) meets Lavan, his uncle and future father-in-law, he is immediately welcomed with open arms. Lavan insists that since they are relatives, he must take care of Jacob. The next pasuk (verse) informs us that Jacob stayed with Lavan for one month.

Lavan says to Jacob, “Ach atzmi ubesari atah…” (“You are truly my bone and flesh” [Genesis 29:14]). These words are unique, occurring only one other time in the Torah, in the story of creation. When God creates Eve (Genesis 2:23), Adam remarks that she comes from his bone and flesh and for this reason should be called “woman” (ishah). Eve is, quite literally, an extension of Adam.

What is the Torah teaching us here? Why does Lavan use the same language to describe Jacob as Adam uses to describe Eve? The message is that our family — even the relationship of an uncle and a nephew — should be seen as an extension of ourselves.

This point may be obvious to some on a philosophical level, though it may be more difficult to understand or define practically. Perhaps recognizing this fact, the midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 70:14) suggests that it is from Lavan’s welcoming of Jacob that we derive one’s obligation to care for family who are visiting for at least one month. As if to say: One might not have considered that they need to feel responsible for this amount of time. One’s attention may have drifted elsewhere — but really, says the midrash, it cannot.

What does it actually mean to view our families as extensions of ourselves? Of course, it means to feed them, sustain them and care for them. But it also means to value them, and sometimes it means to make them a priority. When faced with a choice about who to help and when, it is our family — the extensions of ourselves — that should always come first.

My son’s lowlight of the day pales in comparison to the problems facing the world. And I hope and pray that we can all rise to the occasion and help those whose problems are far more difficult, complex and challenging than my son’s. And yet, I feel strongly: My family’s challenges are my own. And sometimes, that needs to come first.

Rabbi Eitan Cooper is assistant rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac.

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