Frederick L. Klein

VaYetzei: A Reflection for a Time of Conflicting Emotions 

Parking sign in Tel Aviv (Photo by author)

Having returned from Israel, leading a rabbinic solidarity mission, I have been asked, “How was it?”  Others have asked, “How are you doing?”  At the moment, I do not know the answers to these questions.  On our journey we found enormous strength in the unity of Israel and deep anxiety about the future.  We encountered deep despair and at the same time we were surprised by the resilience and hope.  The words Yachad nenatzeach – together we will prevail, were plastered literally everywhere, even on a prosaic digital parking sign.  We gave strength to those who felt deserted by the world, but we felt strengthened by our Israeli brothers and sisters in return, as we have been barraged by unprecedented waves of anti-Semitism.  We went to give love and received  that love in return.

In the three days we were in Israel, we encountered an outpouring of new songs and poetry from all sectors of society, a way to process the sea of conflicting emotions. Even on national newscasts, songs were played for the victims and the soldiers who have fallen.  Songs of hope and defiance.   One poem shared with me, I found particularly poignant.  The army has a division called the civil command (pikud ha-oref), which was created to prepare civilians during national crisis, strengthening communal resilience and providing clear directives and information to all citizens as to how to respond. (My daughter is currently on reserves in this unit, coordinating support for families uprooted in the south of Israel.) The poet Lital Cohen plays on the Hebrew phrases, mah nishma, ma koreh, ma shelomcha, all common phrases for “What’s up?”

The new instructions of the civil command to common niceties:

The phrase Ma Nishma is now moot.  In its place one should ask:

Ma Nishmat? (What has been eliminated)

            Ma Nishbar? (What has been broken)

            Ma Nish’ar?  (What remains)

The phrase Ma Koreh is now forbidden and now in its place one should wonder:

Mah Kores? (What is cracking)

            Mah Nikba? (What is buried)

In place of the words Ma Shlomecha…

The chutzpah

Niceties are not in order.  The veneer of the normal has for a time been removed.  One cannot move through the world as if nothing is abnormal; to do so is not normal itself.

This same emotional turmoil is reflected in the opening lines of our Parashah, as Jacob is uprooted from his familiar surroundings, his home.  Like those in the North in the South of Israel, he has needed to flee not knowing when he will return.   He cannot go home, as a murderous brother awaits.  He happens upon a place, which just happens to be the gate of heaven, although he seems initially unaware of it.  He is too harried, too disturbed to notice.  The word used, is Va-Yifga, a word which can mean to arrive, but more accurately to suddenly happen upon a place, ‘like standing in front of something that struck him (paga) without the ability to move forward.” Jacob is against a wall.  [1] He has nowhere to go and does not know what to do.

It is understandable. Jacob always was an ish tam yoshev ohalim, a simple man dwelling within the tents (Gen. 25:27).  Suddenly he has been thrusted into a struggle with unintended consequences.   For almost the rest of his life, Jacob will fail to again find that tranquility and peace he so much desired from his youth.  In the coming weeks we will find him cheated by Laban, the subject of family discord between his wives, battling with mysterious angels and his brother, politically isolated following the massacres of Levi and Shimon, the death of his wife Rachel, and finally his favorite son sold into slavery, the very person who gives him comfort following the death of his wife.  Even if Jacob clearly does not know his future, he may have intimated that his future is not as bright as he would have hoped.   Recent events have disabused Jacob of an idyllic story.  He will now need to live a new story, a story not of his choosing.  In the words of a high-ranking Israeli official who confided in me about the present situation, “Nothing is ever going to be the same.”  Jacob gathers the rocks on the ground and places his head upon them, hoping that perhaps sleep will release him from the bonds of reality.

Maaseh avot siman Lebanim– the pathways of the patriarchs are portents for their children. This theological principal, most prominently developed by Nachmanides in his Torah commentary, states that the lives of our forefathers and foremothers foreshadow future footsteps in Jewish history. This emotional and mental anguish that characterizes Jacob was acutely reflected for me in meeting with survivors from kibbutzim of the south. About have the residents of Kibbutz Kfar Azza are currently living in guest houses on Kibbutz Shfaim near Herzliya. ( Other families were relocated to Yerucham, which is Miami’s partnership town.  We visited there as well. The residents there are trying to build an entire communal infrastructure for them overnight.[2])  The government has tried to resettle entire communities if possible in order to maintain the social networks created in these small settlements.  The goal is for them to ultimately return together; whether every individual will return is anyone’s guess.  To return  will mean not merely rebuilding the houses and the kibbutz itself but helping the people to go back to the place of the trauma.  Everyone on the kibbutz knows members killed and taken hostage, and many were witnesses to the violence of October 7 itself, some sharing the stories of terrorists sitting in their homes for hours at gunpoint.  While they ransacked the house, they decided not to kill them or take them hostage.  They were the lucky ones.

One survivor was a 13-year-old girl who seemed older than her years, perhaps because of her vacant manner, lacking all the playfulness of a child.  She formulaically recounted the events of October 7, mentioning that for some reason they did not enter her house, although they entered all the houses around her.  She had grown up with missiles and going to bomb shelters, almost like a game.  Falling missiles were part of her life.  She remarked that she never believed they wanted to kill her, but after October 7 she realized that all those missiles were intended for her.  People wanted her dead.  This is a lot for a teenaged girl to process.  What will childhood mean for her, and so many others like her?

It is from this same place of physical and emotional uprootedness, that the rabbis say that Jacob prayed.  According to tradition, Jacob founded the daily evening prayer, and the word cited above, “va-yifga”, is an allusion to prayer.[3]    By saying this, the rabbis are not simply discussing the time of Jacobs prayer, but also the contours of that prayer.  It is a prayer which emerges from a place of desperation.  Rabbi Dov Zinger, in his book of prayer meditations describes the mindset of all the Patriarchs engaged in prayer.  In his description of Jacob, he writes of the person praying before an impassible wall:

Someone stuck at the wall who can go no further

Without choice must at that moment raise his eyes heavenward

And suddenly the field of vision expands

Everything is possible

The finite

Transforms to become infinite

The darkness around transforms

To become [the backdrop] of the countless stars that sparkle in the heaven[4]

Jacob’s very desperation yields to an exalted vision. Jacob imagines a ladder with angels ascending and descending.   Whatever Jacob thought only an hour ago, he now realizes that the events in his life have meaning; some drama is unfolding before his eyes.  What the meaning of this image is supposed to convey is debated among the commentators, but Rashi quoting the midrash opines that the image symbolizes a ‘shift change’.  The angels of the Land of Israel cannot leave the holy land so they return to the heaven, while other angels come down to accompany Jacob as he leaves his beloved home.   From a psychological standpoint, we might say that Jacob encounters a paradigm shift; the spiritual forces that served him up to this point will not serve him moving forward.  The spiritual response- the new angels- will need to reflect the new uncertain situation.  In essence, Rashi’s explanation of Jacob’s vision is meant to directly address the vulnerability that he is experiencing.

God’s message to Jacob reinforces the confidence required in such times of doubt.  God reiterates the covenant made to Abraham so many years earlier and informs him he will ultimately be given the land and his offspring will be numerous.  This is far from obvious, as he is without a spouse, and seems to be reversing his grandfather’s journey by returning to the very family home from which Abraham left.  Returning home will mean a life and death altercation with his brother.  For this reason, God ensures him and are instructive. “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen. 28:15).

Jacob awakens and realizes something is happening.  The stone used to rest his head is now anointed as a monument.  Jacob names the place Beit El, the House of God.  At this point, according to Rashi, Jacob makes a conditional vow.  “If God remains with me, protecting me on this journey that I am making, and giving me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return safe to my father’s house, then Hashem shall be my God.

And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You” (Gen. 28:20-22).[5]   The literal meaning of this vow seems sacrilegious, as God has just promised to protect him.  Is Jacob doubting the veracity of God’s promise, or God’s capacity to deliver?  Rashi, quoting various midrashim, answers that Jacob’s doubt did not have to do with God’s capacity to fulfill the promise, but rather Jacob’s faithfulness to God.  Perhaps Jacob will succumb to sin and no longer be worthy of the God’s providence.

However, must one resort to such a radical rereading of the text?  In other words, can the subject of doubt not merely be on the worthiness of Jacob, but also on God’s promises.  Can one hold multiple feelings at the same time, even when they conflict.  Can one believe in the head when the heart wavers, and can one hold steady in the heart when the head is overloaded with incomprehension?  Essentially, can faith and doubt stand in tension?  It can and it must.

Succumbing to extreme theological certitude, that “God’s promises are with you”, can lead to great moral travesties; I fear those who would try to impose a theological framework on recent events.  Knowing the religious imagination and the messianic impulses, this path can lead to an indulgence in the most extreme fantasies in the human psyche, totally unmoored from reality. Conversely, doubt can lead to paralysis and despair, precisely at a time when one must take action. We do not have the luxury of standing still from some objective point to really analyze the entire picture.  Like Jacob, we have a vision and we have dreams, but we are also on the run, and carrying with us horror and fears, and not simply of this most recent event in Jewish history.

On October 10, Etgar Keret, the best-selling children’s author and international sensation, wrote a small reflection on the front page of Israel’s best-selling paper, Yediot Achronot, entitled “Signs of Life”.

“Now close your eyes and try to stop being angry. Try to stop raging at all those who deserve your righteous fury. Close your eyes, and allow yourself, just for a moment, to simply feel the pain, to hesitate, to be confused, to feel sorrow, remorse. You still have your whole life to spend persecuting, avenging, reckoning. But for now, just close your eyes and look inward like a satellite hovering over a disaster zone searching for signs of life. A lot has been taken away from you, but you’re still a human being – wounded, bloodied, angry, hurting, frightened, drowning in sorrow, but still human. Take a deep breath and try to remember the feeling because you know that, a minute from now, when you open your eyes again, it will be gone.”

Trying to find a place of rest or to even have a vision is indeed a great gift.  The vision of the heavens and the ladder was a great gift to Jacob on a dark night. In a New York Times interview on October 27, Keret admits he is unable to yet provide any framework to understand, the very things children want.[6]  He admits

I think that in our souls, or our minds, or whatever you call it, there is something very complex, some ability to contain ambiguity, not to be swept with only one emotion. To be able to inhale the complexity of existing. And I must say that this became a challenge. It’s not as nonchalant as it used to be.

Perhaps the simultaneous faith and doubt creates a healthy movement forward, the key to Jacob’s future.

On the last day of our mission, my colleague Rabbi Eliezer Wolf shared a beautiful Chasidic story that encapsulates the present moment.  A Jew who was suffering went to Reb Zusha of Hanipol (1718–1800), the early Chasidic master.  Reb Zusha lived in extreme poverty and was known to suffer.  Upon asking as to how he manages, he told the Chasid that he dances.  In a dance there is always one foot on the ground and one in the air, one foot in reality and one heavenward.  In the movement of the dance, a person lives in both worlds.  Reb Zusha shared with the Chasid that he is not unaware that he suffers, but also lives simultaneously in a more harmonious and sublime world. Moving back and forth between these worlds enables him to face the present and not be overwhelmed by it.

Jacob will continue throughout his life to struggle.  His name Israel means struggle, and yet it is Jacob who builds the house of Israel, the twelve tribes.   Jewish history is much longer than present ‘predicament’, and how this one story ends we do not yet know.  Yet like Jacob, we can look to the heavens, see the angels going up and down, and remember God’s promise to him. “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go.”

Shabbat shalom.

Am Yisrael Chai.


[1] Emek Davar, Gen. 28:11.  See Genesis Rabba 68:10

[2] The Israel Emergency Campaign of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation has already allocated $100,000 to them within the first week for this purpose, with more to come.

[3] T.B. Berakhot 26b

[4] Excerpts from the Tefilot Ha-Avot in “Tikon Tefilati”, Dov Singer (My translation)

[5] To be sure, other commentaries do not read Jacob’s statement as a conditional vow at all.  See e.g., Nachamanides ibid.

[6] Etgar Keret Struggles to Make Sense of the Violence and Loss Around Him – The New York Times (

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
Related Topics
Related Posts