Vayetze: The Pursuit of What's Real
As we approach Thanksgiving, it’s appropriate that our portion this week is Vayetze In this portion, we see how gratitude shows Jacob the beauty of God. Although our situation this Thanksgiving may be very different from previous years, it’s important that we consider the novelty of our current circumstances as an opportunity to practice gratitude. You may be finding it especially difficult to do so in a year that has taken so much from us in so many ways. Remember, gratitude comes from seeing everything in our lives through fresh eyes. The pandemic has taken many things; however, it has also given us something of value: a new perspective.
Maybe before, in what we called “normality,” we took a lot of things for granted in our lives. With disruption comes fresh appreciation. Now, a fear of loss has instilled a sense of awe and respect for what we have, and this reminds us of its true value. Although changes may have felt out of our control, we still have choices about how we use this time. We can refuse to waste it. We can use it to build. Then, if we use this time well, we will be in a better position than ever before when “normality” resumes. At that point, the work will begin to maintain the deeper sense of gratitude that our new perspective has granted us.
In this portion, we see Jacob lose everything. He leaves town and, on his way, he falls asleep on 12 rocks. This sleep brings a dream — a dream of God. In the dream, God has a message: the land Jacob sleeps on will be his. The 12 rocks represent the 12 tribes. God was telling Jacob about Israel. When Jacob wakes, he doubts the validity of his dream. His humility leads him to question whether God would really bring this message to someone like him.
How many times have we done the same, second-guessing whether we are worthy of the blessings we receive? It’s an understandable reaction.
What changed everything for Jacob was gratitude. We must remember that gratitude is like a cup: it is a vessel to hold our gifts. Without it, our gifts simply fall away from us. They pass us by. It is only when Jacob shows gratitude to God that he truly understands his beauty and accepts his message. We should be thankful that he did! After all, Jacob had a special purpose; his focus was on building the central column. This represents the balance of our desires — finding a righteous harmony between giving and receiving, serving and being served.
This should be our focus too. Of course, it’s not always easy in our modern world that undervalues service while praising and rewarding selfishness. This is why Jacob’s story remains especially potent. It’s the story of a man who gave up shallow prizes in pursuit of something more meaningful, something that was real. This is a choice we must all make. If it’s not already, Jacob’s story should become the story of our lives. To find the central column for ourselves, we have to deprioritize our selfish desires and look for a way to balance them through giving to, sharing with, and serving others. Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to practice this.
At first glance, Jacob may sound like the perfect example for a motivational speaker. He starts with nothing, sleeping in the street, and he ends up with four wives and twelve tribes. Doesn’t this reflect the message of individual victory that motivational speakers tend to promote? No, it doesn’t. Because Jacob was far from an individualistic person. When he was taken care of by his father-in-law — a man of the snake, who he knew was no good — he recognized that the riches he’d accumulated were therefore meaningless.
Jacob released himself from a gilded cage to pursue the central column, a life of balance and harmony that also served others. What a journey he goes on! At the beginning of the portion, he has nothing to lose. Then he gains everything — or so it would seem. Yet he decides to walk away from it all. This is very inspiring. Surely we agree that it is harder to leave comfortable situations than it is to leave difficult ones? However, Jacob is smart enough to realize that having everything gifted to him by a snake is worse than having nothing at all. More importantly, he is courageous enough to act on this knowledge.
In life, we will inevitably encounter episodes of great loss. It’s easy at these moments to become stuck and bitter, to dwell on injustice and become comfortable identifying as a victim. Instead, why not consider what God is making space for in our lives? Desperation should create inspiration: didn’t Jacob get out of his dire straits to end up with the 12 tribes? He shows us that in the end there is always a reason to thank God for our moments of misery. Yet he teaches us a bigger lesson still: to be discerning about our lives and to be critical of our successes.
In our society, it’s easy to rise as a selfish person and win the admiration of other selfish people. For those of us on a spiritual path, we should not find our worth in these fake prizes, regardless of how appealing they may seem. Instead, we must ask ourselves if we have the courage to ask God for something real — even if it means losing everything we have. Jacob did this, and so this portion reminds us of the need to be brave about our values. At times it may be a lonely path, but there is no spiritual alternative. We must bravely refuse what is false in order to bravely pursue what is real.