Finding our ladder to heaven
In Vayeitzei, we once again experience Yaakov’s wonderful dream of the ladder reaching up to heaven, on which angels ascend and descend whilst Hashem promises protection and guidance from above.
We can imagine the many ways in which our father, Yaakov, could have reacted to such a vision and promise – perhaps the most obvious is with euphoria. If our sages describe heaven as a place in which “there’s no eating and drinking [physical pleasure], jealousy, and competition, but rather the righteous sit with crowns on their heads and bask in the radiance of the divine presence” (Gemara Brachot 17a) and they teach us that the greatest of all possible joy is the ecstatic moment of closeness to G-d, then Yaakov could well have awoken with a spring in his step and a secret smile on his face that he was blessed with such revelation and promise.
In fact, the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Altar of Ger, warns that great spiritual accomplishments can actually lead to a self-congratulatory moment. Yaakov is to be praised for responding, instead, with quiet humility. Rather than viewing the revelation as a sign of his own holiness, he understands that he is in a holy place, and that it played an integral role in bringing him close to G-d (indeed, our sages teach us that he was on the Temple Mount, the future site of the Beit HaMikdash). The Sfat Emet takes this a step further, and says that Yaakov’s acknowledgement of the holiness of the place, his lack of self-congratulation, is part of what made it a holy place.
We are all, at times, blessed with spiritual inspiration. It may be more or less often, but we can all learn from Yaakov to accept such moments with reverence and humility. We can also learn to seek and value such experiences – a combination of internal preparedness and an encounter with a holy space. Whilst all of Hashem’s world is created by His hands and presents opportunities for inspiration, some places have been sanctified for a greater holiness, and these places give us our best chance for genuine connection. A shul, apart from being a beit knesset, a house of assembly, is a beit tefilla, a house of prayer. A space purpose built for human beings to seek and speak with the divine. Every word of prayer uttered in shul goes to heaven, but is also absorbed within the walls, floors, and roof of the shul itself. Every time we enter the holy space, we have an opportunity to sensitise ourselves to the spiritual energy that the shul absorbs and provides. My blessing for us all is that we all experience the holiness of the holy place, and do so in such a way as to leave it an even more holy place for those who come after us.
A shining light
I’m writing this only hours after watching the online kindling of the Menorah at the Kotel on the second night of Chanukah, which was dedicated in memory of Eli Kay z”l (who was killed in a terrorist attack near the Kotel on 21 November), and which has inspired what follows below.
The shamash (the attendant candle) on the chanukiah is not included in the mitzvah candles. Yet, without it there can be no light. It’s the enabler that creates the environment for mitzvah performance. Like the shamash, Eli brought so much light to those around him with grace and humility. King Solomon wrote, “the candle of G-d is the soul of man”. Within each of us is a divine spark, which connects us to Hashem and which, importantly, allows us to ignite and inspire others. By sharing his flame so magnanimously and selflessly, Eli was able to bring the light of others to the fore.
This “shamash effect” did not cease upon Eli’s passing. If anything, it only intensified. Eli’s passing has been the catalyst for the performance of mitzvot worldwide, whether it be a commitment to wearing tefillin, or the lighting of Shabbat and Chanukah candles. People have rededicated themselves to their Judaism in a powerful and tangible way. And surely this is what Chanukah is all about. More than merely commemorating a great miracle and the rededication of the holy Temple (from which the holiday gets its name), Chanukah affords us the opportunity each year to rededicate ourselves to our Judaism and to commit once again to our relationship with Hashem.
Pirsumei nisa (publicising the miracle) is an important element of the mitzvah of lighting the menorah. It’s for this reason that we place the chanukiah in the window or in a public place. We want the light of Chanukah to be visible to all.
Publicity, though, it’s not something we’re all necessarily comfortable with. We may feel an internal connection with Hashem and with our Judaism, but do we openly and proudly display it?
Eli had no such problem. Eli was a proud Jew and a proud Zionist. He was not just a Jew at heart or an idealistic Zionist. He directed his feelings to action.
This year, when the world seems so dark to so many, let’s try to emulate the shamash candle. Let’s emulate Eli. Let’s be the light unto the nations – starting with our own nation. Let’s help those around us to rediscover their light. Let’s stand tall and proud. Let’s ensure that our fresh commitment to mitzvot endures.
May the memory of Eli continue to be a guiding light to us all.
Turn on the light
This month can certainly use some light. Our community has experienced the emotional toll of terrible losses in the past days and weeks. It almost feels fitting that Eskom keeps plunging us into physical darkness as well.
What better time to usher in Chanukah – eight days of ever-increasing light, life, and miracles. Here are eight ideas we can learn from the Chanukah miracles to increase light and add meaning to life. Perhaps we can meditate and integrate these, one for each night of Chanukah.
- Few can win over many. It’s not the numbers that are most significant; it’s the passion and vigour of one’s conviction.
- Don’t conform to popular opinion just because it’s popular. Stay true to your inner values.
- A little light dispels much darkness. One positive word or good action can erase so much gloom.
- Don’t fight darkness. Enlighten it by shining the light of truth and purpose. Don’t dwell on negativity or failures. Instead, focus on positive change.
- Increase the light each night. Don’t be satisfied with your achievements, keep aiming higher.
- It’s not enough to light up one’s self, light up the outdoors as well. Share wisdom and good fortune with others.
- When we go beyond our natural abilities, we elicit G-d’s miracles.
- We are a miraculous nation. In spite of all of those who tried to decimate us, we have survived and thrived.
In Parshat Vayeshev, which we read this week, we meet Joseph the dreamer describing his night-time reveries to his family. One of the dreams he relates is of his family collecting grain stalks in the field and binding them into sheaves.
A field, the outdoors, represents the “outside world” away from a Jew’s comfort zone. One of the explanations offered is that Joseph and his brothers were outside collecting lost “sparks” of holiness.
G-d created the world in a way that holiness is concealed everywhere. Our job is to uncover those sparks and elevate them back to their original source. We can’t find these sparks just by staying inside. We need to go out and bring the light of Torah and Judaism’s message to the furthest reaches of the universe; only then will the sparks be returned to where they belong.
During the festival of Chanukah, we light our menorahs outdoors and specifically at night, symbolising our mission to light up the darkness, physical and spiritual.
Throughout the past 20 months, we were required to quarantine and isolate for fear of spreading COVID-19. Chanukah is about being infectious in a good way. It teaches us the power of spreading light with good deeds, like lighting a Chanukah candle, thereby illuminating our surroundings.
May the light of the menorah illuminate the darkness presently pervading our world. Wishing our entire community, a very joyous, light-filled Chanukah.
Dinah and destiny, a life lesson
The shocking incident of Dinah’s abduction by Shechem and his father, Chamor, is one of the themes of this week’s parsha. They thought they could take advantage of the first Jewish family, but brothers Shimon and Levy put an end to their nefarious plan, and rescue their sister.
Based on the premise that nothing happens without a reason, the question we have to ask is why did this incident occur to tzaddikim like Yaakov Avinu and Dinah?
Rashi answers by taking us back to the beginning of the parsha, to the meeting between Yaakov and Esav. After so many years of estrangement, Yaakov made some careful preparations for this reunion, protecting his wives and children from Esav’s evil gaze. And he protected his daughter, Dinah, by hiding her in a box. He was worried that she would be kidnapped by Esav.
Our sages tell us that this was a mistake. Had Esav seen Dinah, they would have ended up getting married, and Esav would have been positively influenced by Dinah’s holiness. But because Yaakov hid her away, she was abducted by Shechem, a person even more wicked than Esav!
But this answer is problematic. In last week’s parsha, the sages tell us that Leah (Dinah’s mother) cried because she knew that she was destined to become the wife of Esav, and prayed to Hashem to change this destiny. If Leah did everything she could to get out of marrying Esav, why couldn’t Yaakov do the same for his daughter?
Perhaps the answer is that Dinah’s situation is different in that she wasn’t given the choice of changing Esav’s evil ways, she was completely prevented from doing so by her father. We see Dinah’s tremendous power and good influence in the most unlikely place, when the Torah continues telling us about Shechem, saying, “And his soul clung to the soul of the daughter of Yaakov, and he loved her and spoke to her heart.” Dinah had a positive influence on this wicked man’s soul. A changed Shechem even agrees to have all the men in his city circumcised!
Yaakov didn’t allow that to happen. He didn’t give Esav the opportunity to change, and didn’t give Dinah the opportunity to fulfil her destiny to improve Esav.
Parents can learn from this a powerful message about raising their children to be who they are meant to be, and not put them in a “box”. To enable our children to fulfil their destiny, even if it may be different to what we think that destiny ought to be.
We learn the tremendous power and influence that Hashem has given all of us. We have no idea how our actions affect other people, what their ripple effect will be. In such a short space of time, Dinah could change a whole city of people. We learn from Dinah that every single one of us has great potential to change the world.
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