Lisi Levisohn

For with my staff, I crossed this Jordan

After finally fleeing Lavan, so many years after being forced to flee his own home, Yaakov sends messengers to try to appease his brother Esav who might still want to kill him — only to find out that he is heading toward him with an army of 400 men. Yaakov is terrified, and splits his camp into two: in case one half gets destroyed, the others might survive. He prays to God to save him:

קָטֹ֜נְתִּי מִכֹּ֤ל הַחֲסָדִים֙ וּמִכָּל־הָ֣אֱמֶ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתָ אֶת־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֣י בְמַקְלִ֗י עָבַ֙רְתִּי֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֣ן הַזֶּ֔ה וְעַתָּ֥ה הָיִ֖יתִי לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַחֲנֽוֹת

I am humbled from all the kindness and truth that you have done for Your servant: for with my staff alone, I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.

“With my staff I crossed this river” — כִּ֣י בְמַקְלִ֗י עָבַ֙רְתִּי֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֣ן הַזֶּ֔ה  Imagine Yaakov holding his staff, in this moment, after everything he had been through. What does he mean with these words? I had always understood that they were coming from a place of fear, smallness and vulnerability: I crossed this river alone, in the dark, with nothing buy my stick; after being forced to run away from my parents’ home, because my brother wanted to kill me, because my mother told me to deceive my brother and father, because otherwise I would not receive a blessing, because my father didn’t know me or love me enough; after working for 20 years for a treacherous Lavan, who could turn around and take everything away from me; after learning that my brother Eisav is coming after me and family with an army of 400 men…  And now my family, whom I had to work so hard for, is split apart, split in two, and I could lose them.

At shiva for her father, a friend once shared the most moving memory: her father had escaped the Holocaust as a child by being sent away on the Kindertransport to England, and survived to marry there and have children and raise a beautiful, strong Jewish family. In telling his story, he would recite these words of Yaakov — כִּ֣י בְמַקְלִ֗י עָבַ֙רְתִּי֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֣ן הַזֶּ֔ה — I crossed this river with my stick. He said it with gratitude and strength, with the resilient optimism and vigor of someone who has survived everything despite so many odds.

It was the first time I had imagined strength and gratitude in Yaakov’s prayer! Yaakov exclaims: What an incredible miracle of strength and resilience that I was able to cross the big river with just my stick! And how amazing that my camp is now so big that it is really like two camps! Like the optical illusions where your eyes can only perceive it one way at a time — Is it a vase or two faces? A young woman or old? — I had never perceived the possibility of strength in those words — כִּ֣י בְמַקְלִ֗י עָבַ֙רְתִּי֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֣ן הַזֶּ֔ה. But now, hearing it in the resilient, secure voice of my friend’s father, I could almost no longer hear the voice of fear and vulnerability.

Fragile vulnerability or strong gratitude?  Is it possible to perceive both at the same time?

When my son was in middle school, he was assigned an open-ended art project, to create something that showed a concept in Tefillah (prayer). He decided to make two little wooden boxes — each about the size of a fist. On one, he painted in blue the word בקשה, request, and on the other, he painted in red the word הודאה, thanks. I loved these little boxes, and we put them by our Shabbat candles. We had a plan that every Friday right before candle lighting we’d put a note in each box — something we were grateful for, and something we prayed for.  Of course, who has time to write notes right before candle lighting! I ended up modifying the custom — I’d glance quickly at each box and put an imaginary, mental note each one. But no matter how rushed we were, I never failed to look back and forth at that red box and that blue box, sitting together side by side. Hoda’a, Bakasha; Hoda’a, Bakasha. For all the years our kids grew up in our home.

Like a beating heart, with left and right side bound together: the left side, red and rich with oxygen, filled with everything it needs, pumping out to nourish; the right side, blue and wanting, asking for the oxygen it desperately needs.  Both sides perpetually beating together.  Hoda’a, Bakasha; Hoda’a, Bakasha.

The formal structures of our Tefillah often separate the thanking from the asking. Our daily Amidah is divided into three sections: the unwavering proclamations of praise to God, then our personal requests and needs, and then the thanks. But looking more deeply, these structures are so often intertwined, beating together: in the blessing: אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה we praise God for the amazing wisdom with which He created the human body — the intricate, incredible engineering that allows us to live day to day without our even thinking about it. And, at that very same time, we are starkly aware that if any single one of those tiny intricate valves or passages were to have a problem, we couldn’t continue standing before Him — אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמֹד לְפָנֶֽיךָ אֲפִילוּ שָׁעָה אֶחָת. We are walking miracles, and that awareness at once makes us feel overwhelming gratitude and overwhelming vulnerability.

A beautiful variation of Modeh Ani by Israeli singer/song-writer Omer Adam, contains the following verse:

 מודה אני כל בוקר

על כוחי על אבי ועל אמי

מודה אני על גשם שנתת בשדותיי

לדאוג לאוהביי נתת לי חיי

I offer my thanks to you, every morning

For my strength, for my father and for my mother

I offer my thanks to you, for the rain you gave to my fields

To worry for my loved ones, you gave me my life

Thank you for my power is in the same breath as thank you for my parents; to worry about those I love, is in the same breath as you gave me life.  The refrain of מודה אני  ,I thank you, beats along with the refrain אליך אקרא יה אליך אקרא יה, I call to you, I call to you. A song about thanks cannot help but be a desperately vulnerable plea to protect everything and everybody we love. If you listen, I think the melody expresses this too.

For with my staff I crossed this Jordan.  כִּ֣י בְמַקְלִ֗י עָבַ֨רְתִּי֙   Like Yaakov, we are scared but we are also strong; we feel small, קָטֹ֜נְתִּי, but we are also overwhelmed by the good in our lives; we are deeply grateful but we are also desperately asking.  For this is what it means to have a human heart.


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About the Author
Lisi Levisohn is a child neuropsychologist, who also enjoys Torah-Inspired science, children’s tefillah and bat mitzvah studies in her community.
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