Pausing in the Pandemonium
by Miri Korbman
There are many ways to learn and gain inspiration from the Torah text, and assessing the structure and textual architecture of the Parshios is one means of deriving further meaning and insight from the Torah itself. Parshas Vayeitzei has a unique structure in that while most Parshios contain breaks or pauses and are divided into paragraphs (the literal translation of “parshios”), Vayeitzei does not contain any of these breaks. R’ Immanuel Bernstein cites an incredible idea from R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz to shed light on the significance of this Parsha’s unique textual structure. He notes that as Yaakov sets out from his parents’ home, he also embarks on a journey of many decades of running to and fro, toward Lavan and away from Eisav, and then away from Lavan and toward Eisav again. This Parsha marks the start of Yaakov’s own exile, characterized by chaos, fear, crisis, a whirlwind of running and chasing with barely a moment to sit back and take in what is happening to and around him.
This first journey of Yaakov’s is one of many moments in his life that depict him as the paradigm of Judaism, illustrating how and why it is Yaakov whose name (Israel) our nation bears. Yaakov exemplified for all of his descendants what it means to be in Galus; the chaos, the confusion, the feeling of moving nonstop without a moment’s pause to reflect on what is happening around us, our next destination determined not necessarily by where we want to go, but where we can no longer remain. R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that this was Yaakov’s experience, which began with leaving his father’s house in Parshas Vayetzei, and that is why there are no pauses in this Parsha.
There is more to being a Jew in exile, of course. R’ Chaim Marcus in his weekly Parsha Shiur this week expounded upon this idea and highlighted many of Yaakov’s traits and tendencies that exemplify what it means to be a Jew in the diaspora. Firstly, Yaakov stops for fourteen years to learn in the study halls of Shem and Eiver, despite having the wisest and holiest of teachers as father and grandfather, respectively. Yet, the Torah of Avraham and Yitzchak was of a more pure and sheltered form, while the Torah of Shem and Eiver was designed for those dealing with idol worshippers in “the rest of the world,” who may not have yet been fully turned on to monotheism. Before going to Lavan’s house, Yaakov educated himself in a new and different way, in order to be able to deal well and effectively with those outside the bubble in which he had purposefully ensconced himself for most of his life. We see that when Yaakov comes to Charan, he greets the people there not as strangers, foreign idolaters who have no relation to him, but as “achai,” my brothers, for Jews the world over recognize that we are inherently tied to and responsible for all human beings (29:4).
Thus far, we’ve observed that Yaakov grapples with an ever-moving, chaotic life on the run, never having time to pause. And, at the same time, we observe that he makes the time to prepare for this journey by educating himself and grounding himself as much as possible both in his own values and truth as well as in how to navigate the world of other people he is about to encounter who may not share those values. Already, we have much to learn.
And yet, there is more.
In his book, Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks beautifully outlines how it is precisely at the moments of greatest struggle in Yaakov’s life that he experiences the highest of spiritual heights. When he is fleeing Eisav’s wrath, and approaching Lavan’s house of foreign worship representing its own kind of threat, Yaakov has the incredible dream-vision of the ladder and the angels ascending and descending (28:12). Later, when he has left Lavan and is preparing his entire family and camp to meet Eisav once more, he fights with the Sar shel Eisav, injuring himself and limping away with a new name in the process, a name that will define our national history. Rabbi Sacks posits that Yaakov’s greatest spiritual growth and strength was derived from and created within his toughest struggles. It was in the moments of fear and crisis that Yaakov felt God’s presence most acutely, that he was made so intensely aware of the ways in which Hashem was holding him and offering His hand all along.
There is a deep and critical connection between these two ideas. At the height of the chaos and whirlwind of Yaakov’s life, from within the hardship, the fear, the uncertainty, the encroaching threat around every new corner, Yaakov achieves his greatest spiritual heights. Psychologists have long emphasized the importance of making meaning out of suffering and despair, but only recently has the field began to recognize the tremendous opportunity in opening our eyes in the eye of the storm, of stopping mid-twirl within the whirlwind of our struggle and pain to say, “this moment, this right here, is FULL of potential.” Whether we call it spiritual or not – and we certainly do – this idea is essential.
In an interview with Anderson Cooper before an audience of hundreds if not thousands, Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus at University of Massachusetts and founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), explained about mindfulness, “it’s not about having some special experience; whatever you are experiencing now in this moment is already insanely special.” We often think we need to wait for the storm to pass to appreciate whatever is left in its wake, but the storm in and of itself can build us, and as the well-known quote goes, we can learn to dance in it.
How does Yaakov come to appreciate the spiritual potential in his moments of struggle and fear? He stops. He takes a pause. In our Parsha, he stops literally to rest, for the first time (as Rashi notes) in many years. The pasuk says, “Vayifga bamakom hahu, vayalen sham,” he came upon the place [the Temple mount] and slept there (28:11). Yaakov took a moment to pause before continuing on to Charan, and in that pause, he has the dream that so deeply connects him, grounds him, steadies him, integrates all he has learned with all he has known, and enables him to go on. In next week’s Parsha, Vayishlach, we see that again before meeting with Eisav, on the eve of what could well turn into an intra-familiar war, Yaakov separates himself from his family, takes a moment alone, and goes back across the river for some belongings he’s left behind – and there he meets the angel of Eisav, and our nation’s destiny.
We live in chaotic times. We barely have a moment to pause, to take in all that is happening to us, individually or nationally. Yaakov’s journey highlights for us the importance of seeing God in the struggle itself, while it is happening, not just after the fact – and sometimes that means trying to take a pause even when the assumed structure or architecture of our life stories doesn’t seem to lend itself to taking one. We must educate ourselves about the world around us, and not be isolated from it, even while maintaining our own values. We must treat others as fellow humans, brothers in this literal human race. Everyone feels like they are running. You are not alone in sometimes forgetting what you’re running from, or toward, or both.
This week, let us recognize that at the times when no opportunity to pause seems forthcoming, we can still be in this moment, using it to connect even if it is a moment of struggle or chaos or uncertainty, and that we don’t necessarily need to wait to know the end of the story, for the storm to pass, to gain from the moment that is happening right now. And if you are able take a pause, do so. You will find that in the swirl of chaos all around you, there is God’s steady presence, and there is the life you are building and all you are becoming, through what is happening to and through you.