Yechiel Shaffer
The Rabbi of Pikesville Jewish Congregation in MD

What Vayetze Teaches us about Building a Community Culture

At the beginning of Vayetze, Yaakov famously dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder that stretches from the Earth to the Heavens. This story has captured the imagination of artists, and dreamers for generations. It is a wonderful story to share with children, and helps us all consider how much we can achieve.

This parsha interestingly also concludes with Yaakov witnessing another group of angels.

Genesis 32:2-3

וְיַעֲקֹב הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים׃

Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him.

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָם מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים זֶה וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם־הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא מַחֲנָיִם׃

When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Mahanaim.

This certainly is not a coincidence.

The parsha captures a complete chapter in Yaakov’s life-story. Vayetze focuses on Yaakov’s transformation from an adolescent, dependent on the security of his parent’s home, to a married man, with a blossoming professional life. This 20 year transformation is captured in the events of this Parsha. Perhaps there is no greater expression of this transformation into adulthood than when he found his voice, and stood up to his father in law’s invasive search of the camp. Instead of fleeing conflict, Yaakov  confronts it.

It is in Yaakov’s visions, both at the beginning of his journey, and at the conclusion, that we gain a new insight into the importance of community.

As Yaakov spends his first night alone, on the road, he witnesses in his dream these angels going up and down a ladder, coming to and from Heaven. He sees them as individuals, who are each brilliant, and capable of standing on their own. This vision must have resonated deeply with Yaakov. He has stood alone his entire life so far. He was distinct from his brother, distanced from his father, and focused solely on his own development. He secures the birthright from Eisav, ensuring his own spiritual future, and putting his interests first. Of course his vision in that moment was going to be of those distinct spiritual beings that can reach the Heavens on their own. A ladder is a tool that is not conducive to creating a shared space. There is nothing collaborative about climbing a ladder. In fact, the more people there are on a ladder the more dangerous it becomes. It is no coincidence that it is common lore that it is unlucky to walk underneath a ladder, perhaps due to the distraction you may create for the person who is on top.

At the end of our parsha Yaakov comes upon an encampment of angels, and declares the name of that place, “machanaim,” which loosely translates as ‘encampments’. What strikes Yaakov at this time is that he sees Angels with each other, together. He does not see one above the other, he doesn’t witness any hierarchy within the group. What he notices most is that they are a community. In renaming that neighborhood ‘encampment’ Yaakov captures what he must have been feeling in that moment. He quietly shows to us what is bringing him back to his parent’s home, even though he will have to confront his murderous brother.

Yaakov is seeking a community of people that have shared values. Too long has he lived with Lavan, where his relationship’s are transactional and often, hostile. Now it is time in his life where he is seeking camaraderie, and so he sees community everywhere he turns.

In these times, where building a physical community is near impossible due to the need to maintain social distancing, we must be like Yaakov and see community wherever we turn. There are angels in our midst who are supporting the vulnerable, who are working never ending shifts in hospitals, who are keeping our children  engaged and inspired in school – we witness these communities and should be inspired by their values and heroism.

This week I want to highlight one growing community within our midst, a cadre of parents who are seeking to create a communal culture that delays the invasion of smart phones into the lives of their children. While this community values the incredible benefits of a connected world, it is a group of people who also want to delay their children from having their own smart phones until 9th grade, to maintain  the adolescence that is so defining of Yaakov at the beginning of Vayetze. We want our children to be dreaming of angels, not apps.

To learn more about this ‘wait until 9th’ effort please see this video – and to take the pledge, and join this community of parents committing to wait until 9th grade to purchase a smart phone for their  child – visit here.

As Yaakov grows through this parsha he learns how much he needs the support and friendship of others, a lesson we continue to reflect upon in these turbulent times.

About the Author
Formerly the Assistant Rabbi of Cong. Ohab Zedek in NYC, and The Hampton Synagogue, Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer is the Rabbi of the growing, young community, Pikesville Jewish Congregation, in Pikesville, MD.
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