One Minute Torah: Vayetze 5779

Thanks to the timelessness of Torah and the time-limited nature of our lives, this week’s commentary is from the archives.

Thanks to the timelessness of Torah and the time-limited nature of our lives, this week’s commentary is from the archives.

The word Hebrew, עברית, comes from the root word meaning to “cross-over” or “pass-through”. The Hebrews were border-crossers. They were the group that crossed the Red Sea to leave Egypt, then crossed the Jordan river to enter the land of Israel. Their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, crossed out of Charan in Mesopotamia, seeking their fortunes in an unknown land. And in this week’s parshah, Abraham and Sarah’s grandson makes that journey in reverse. The parshah is called VaYetseh, meaning he went out, and it opens with: “Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva (in the south of Israel) towards Charan.” Unlike his proud immigrant grandparents, Jacob is a refugee, fleeing for his life.

As Jacob is about to cross out of Israel, he dreams he sees a ladder stretching to heaven, with angels going up and down. 12th C commentator Rashi explained that the angels who accompanied Jacob in his homeland were going up the ladder back to heaven, and new angels were coming down to accompany him in foreign lands. You need different angels in a new country, where formulating a sentence may require the extra mental effort of translation, misunderstood social cues can easily lead to hurt and loss, and it can be hard not to experience yourself as the stranger.

These stories of our mythological ancestors reinforced Jewish identity through the centuries, as time and time again Jews became immigrants, wanderers and refugees. My own children sometimes feel themselves to be strangers, especially in October when my son takes off time from school for the Jewish holidays, and again in December when both my daughters (who attend Jewish schools) wish we could have pretty lights on our house. But they don’t know what it means to be immigrants. In our family, we need to reach back three generations, to stories of the children’s great-grandparents, to remember what it was like to sit in a New York City public school classroom and not understand a word of English.

At their core, our children are comfortable Americans. And so it is our responsibility to keep telling the stories: our own family immigration stories, and the stories of our people, the Jews, the Hebrews — a people who identify with immigrants, refugees and strangers.