In this Shabbat morning’s Torah study, we will examine the life of our Matriarch Leah, and try to understand how one can be grateful and disappointed at the same time.
Minutes of Torah
In this week’s parashat Vayeitzei we follow Jacob’s 20-year exile, living in the household of his uncle Laban. In that time, he marries Leah and Rachel; and fathers 12 children with them and their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah: the tribal forebears of the Jewish people.
Strikingly, the parashah is book-ended at beginning and end by passages describing Jacob at the boundary between his homeland Canaan and that of Laban’s. The opening three verses of the parashah describe Jacob arriving at the border as the sun is setting, and Jacob places a stone under his head to sleep and he dreams that God’s angels were going up and down a ladder.
Twenty years later, Laban and Jacob resolve a conflict at the border. They establish a boundary between them represented by a pillar built of stones. The Torah portion concludes as it began, with three verses describing angels at the border—this time, as the sun rises on a new day.
We are constantly creating borders or boundaries in our personal relationships, establishing the points where we ‘end’ and others ‘begin.’ Yet, as we examine our boundaries, we need to understand that they should be neither impenetrable nor opaque, but rather as permeable and translucent.
In Judaism we differentiate between objects and sanctify that difference. Indeed, the word in Hebrew for ‘holiness’ – kodesh, comes from the root word meaning: ‘to separate.’ At the same time, we use those points of separation to recognize the fluid relationship that exists between the ‘holy’ and the ‘unholy.’
For example, the sukkah consists of porous walls which, though serving to separate the inside from the outside, are sufficiently ‘leaky’ that the separation is in stages. Similarly, both at the beginning and end of Shabbat, candles are lit creating an event that separates the holy Shabbat from the non-holy week, but does so in a dawdling fashion as we watch the Shabbat bride saunter slowly into our lives or stroll away from us in a lingering fashion in the Havdalah ceremony.
The description of these indefinite borders suggests that the interpersonal boundaries in our daily lives be strong enough to protect and define us – like the rocks that Jacob deploys; nevertheless, also be flexible and permeable enough to link and unify us, as Jacob does both with God and Laban. By proceeding in this fashion, we are more likely to draw a line that connects us with others, rather than unnecessarily walls us or them off.
To be sure, we need boundaries to help us understand how we are to navigate life. But if we allow those walls to be ironclad, we allow our yetzer hara — the evil inclination, to take over because it would like nothing better than to create separations between us and our family, our friends, our neighbors, our community.
We might want to see how we approach our relationships: do I tend to be reactive and rigid in setting boundaries, or harsh in the way I communicate them to others? If so, can I choose to make them more flexible, or be kinder in communicating them?
Or alternatively, am I inclined to be vague and tentative in setting and communicating limits or making decisions? If so, can I say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ more strongly, directly, and clearly?
As Jews, we understand that the sacred may often be found at the intersection between the ‘holy’ and the ‘un-holy’. It is at the very same intersection between ‘us’ and ‘everybody else’ in our personal lives that ought to occupy more of our attention. For it is at that point where we make the most critical decisions impacting the future of our relationships, whether they be with the Divine, other people or anything else in your life. Hopefully, those borders will be flexible enough so that you will be able to modify them to account for the circumstances of a situation and not get caught in the vise of a pre-arranged decision.