Parashat Vayetzeh

This d'rasha was written in honor of the bat mitzvah of Rachel Spronz of Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles.

Parashat Vayetzeh is brimming with potential and is pregnant with becoming. Even though the parashah starts off with ‘vayetzeh’(he went out), this really is the parashah of women, and of girls-becoming-women.

As with any good story, the parashah opens with a mystery: Jacob, when travelling from Beer Sheva to Haran sets up camp to spend the night. It is there that he has his fateful dream of angels ascending and descending the ladder. But as it often goes with strange and inexplicable dreams, they teach us something. As God appears in Jacob’s dream, He says: “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go.” (Gen. 28:14) Of course, Jacob awakes startled and proclaims: “Mah nora hamakom hazeh! – How awesome is this place!” The perennial way to start a journey of becoming.

Then, the parashah shifts. Jacob meets the lovely Rachel at the well and falls in love with her, because she is “shapely and beautiful” (29:15). Does the Torah really want us to assume that good looks are really that important? All too often women compare (and compete with) our looks from which can stem a profound sense of inadequacy. It is tempting to see this parashah as a grand competition between two sisters, both entwined in each others’ pain. It is easy to become fixed on the externals—on the good looks of things—that we forget their potential and what they could become. Rachel and Leah were so trapped in sisterly rivalry for the love of one man that they negated their own potential. Their obsession with what was blinded them to what could be.

And so, the Torah’s remark about Rachel’s physical beauty needs not to be read one-dimensionally. The Hebrew says: “Rachel haita yafat-to’ar v’yafat mar’eh”: And Rachel was beautiful of shape and of appearance.

Rashi comments on the word ‘mar’eh’. He says that this referred to the ‘shining of her face’. Our faces can become windows through which our essence shines. It does not have anything to do with skin-deep beauty but everything with potential and confidence and kindness. Maybe Rachel's beauty was not external but internal. It seems fitting that immediately after the Torah describes Rachel’s beauty, the narrative states that Jacob loved her. A kinder (and more emancipated) reading would be that Jacob loved her for her neshama—her soul—and all the potential her soul engendered.

Does this excuse the troubling events in the parashah? Yes and no. Rachel and Leah get switched at the wedding. Leah feels deeply and desperately unloved. And both their father Laban and their husband Jacob do not display the most moral of conduct.

All these things implicate our patriarchs (and matriarchs) and the unsettling nature of the parashah resonates on both a moral and an existential level. But sometimes that’s just how life is. And moreover, this is also just how we experience life—our Biblical forebears being no different. We can all feel loneliness or self-deprecation. We punish ourselves with our insecurity and sense of inadequacy. This human condition applies to both genders but it is no surprise that the sisters Rachel and Leah seem to act as an example therein. All too often it is women who experience these emotions.

And so it is important to be aware that this is all part of being human and of self-actualization. Yet the beginning the parashah, featuring Jacob’s dream, could provide us both insight and comfort in this process. In the dream, the Holy One blessed be He said that He would always be with Jacob.

If emunah (faith) is to teach us anything, it is that in the hard moments of our lives, when we are fighting hard to become someone new and for our place in the world, we can trust in ourselves. Emunah lies not only in seeing the awesomeness of the place in which we stand or to feel loved by something greater than ourselves, but also in the ability to see ourselves as whole: as beautiful in both form and appearance.

So, whether we travel from Beer Sheva to Haran or any other of the myriad destinations of our lives, we can and should extend the kindness of angels to ourselves. In our coming and going as the parasha suggests, we can feel protected. But we can also protect ourselves by faith and trust and profound self-love and self-respect. Only then is the journey not merely on of travels and travails but also of becoming fully who were are, a mirage of the divine.

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