Parashat Vayeitzei

One of the strongest memories I have from my Nivo summer is of my eidah moving all the benches from around camp to the lakefront each week for Kabbalat Shabbat. My Rosh Eidah hit upon a master stroke which I only fully appreciated once I returned on staff: he made the grueling and menial chore into an epic competition. “No Nivo eidah has ever set up all the benches in less than eight minutes!” he might say, “To do so would be a legendary feat!” Desperate to be the best there ever was, we would set off running, grabbing as many benches at a time as possible, and completing the set-up in what we believed to be record time. Six years later, blessed with hindsight, I am now 76% sure there was no actual record keeping (although part of me can’t help being proud nonetheless). Still, I can appreciate that what we accomplished every week – what has been and continues to be accomplished every Shabbat of every summer at Ramah – is in fact an astounding feat: with great exertion and hard work, by transferring furniture from one part of the camp to another, we sanctify a holy space.

In Parashat Vayeitzei, Jacob, too, sanctifies space, moving not a bench, but a stone. Upon waking from a dream in which God promises him to protect him and make him a great and blessed nation, Jacob sets up a stone as a monument to God, naming the place Beth El, and declaring, “If God will be with me, and will guide me on this path…and if I return in peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my God, then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that you give to me, I will surely tithe to you” (Bereshit 28, 20-22). Just hours earlier, this piece of earth had been nothing more than a place for a half-decent nap; suddenly, it is a house of God, the physical manifestation of a lasting and permanent covenant between Jacob and God. Later in the parasha, after Jacob has toiled for twenty years for Laban, God calls to him, saying, “I am the God of Beth El, where you anointed a monument, where you pronounced to me a vow. Now arise, go forth from this land and return to the land of your birth” (Bereshit 31, 13). The pillar Jacob created has become a lighthouse, guiding him back home after years of chaotic struggle.

Interestingly, those years of struggle in Haran begin with Jacob, once again, moving a stone. This time, instead of putting one into place as a permanent landmark, he removes it from its designated spot, taking the cover off of a well for Rachel and her father’s sheep to drink. With this act of kind labor, Jacob opens up not only a well, but a Pandora’s box of trials and travails, including but not limited to grueling labor, a wife swap, thirteen children, innovative cattle breeding techniques, and theft of holy objects. In the years after removing the stone from the well, Jacob becomes a man, raises a family, overcomes the plotting of his devious father-in-law, and begins his journey home. The removal of this second stone proves to be a profoundly unsettling experience; Jacob could never have predicted how drastically his life would change.

While putting the first stone in place proves to be a grounding experience for Jacob, and removing the second leads to great unpredictability, both are necessary steps in his life. Without the permanence of his covenant to God, Jacob could not have found comfort and guidance; without the adventure of his life in Haran, Jacob could not have become the ultimate family man. Through his own labor, he creates the space within his life for both consistency and dynamism. It is this willingness to be both solidly grounded and open to change which make Jacob a great father of our people. At camp, too, structure and routine intermingle with randomness and freedom, and in the space between, Jewish lives are built. May we, like Jacob, be willing to put in the work to allow those opportunities to flourish.