Parshat Vayetze: Choosing Gratitude

Parshat Vayetze begins with the famous story in which Jacob dreams of a stairway (or ladder) stretching up to the sky, with angels going up and down upon it.  God describes himself as the God of Abraham and Isaac, and promises to be with Jacob and to assign that land to Jacob’s offspring.  Jacob awakens and declares: “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!”  He continues: “How awesome (Ma-Norah) is this place! This is none other than the abode of God.”

This is a famous scene.  Less famous, though, is the bit that follows it, in which Jacob makes the following vow (in Genesis 28:20-21): “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God.”

Wow!  You’d think the powerful and awesome vision Jacob had received, along with the promises spoken to him directly by God, would have been enough for him.  But, nope, Jacob only vows to take God as his God IF God does all that other stuff for him.  It’s astonishing how quickly Jacob slipped out of a moment of incredible spirituality and awe, and back into a selfish mindset in which he was focused only on what he wanted God to do for him.

This kayitz (summer), our educational theme will be b’rachot (blessings), and one aspect that we are looking forward to exploring with our hanichim (campers) is the importance of gratitude.  For the past month or so, at the start of our weekly staff meetings, our year-round staff has been studying, together, the b’rachot of the Birchot haShachar.  It’s been fascinating to dig deeply into these b’rachot, in which we thank God for several basic aspects of our existence: being able to wake up in the morning, being free, having clothing, etc.  I like the idea that our we are reminded to show gratitude for these things, on a daily basis, rather than taking them for granted.  This is an especially useful idea to keep in mind so soon after Thanksgiving.  I enjoyed spending time with my family, eating lots of yummy meals, and shopping for sales over the Thanksgiving break.  But certainly the latter two shouldn’t be what that holiday is all about!

Lest you think I’ve been too critical of our patriarch Jacob, let’s remember that there is a bookend story that ends Parshat Vayetze.  Twenty years after the events of Jacob’s dream of a stairway to the sky, after all of Jacob’s tumultuous experiences with Lavan, we read in the final two pseukim of Vayetze (Genesis 32:2-3) that: “Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him.  When he saw them, Jacob said, ‘This is God’s camp.’ So he named that place Machanaim.”  In this simple, concise story, Jacob again encounters the divine.  But this time, we don’t hear anything from Jacob asking God to give him what he desires.  Jacob has grown up.

By the way, the name Machanaim is of course connected to the word Machane – Camp.  It makes me happy to read of Jacob recognizing the specialness of camp!   Those of us who have spent time in 01069 all know that God can be especially present within the confines of our wonderful camp, Machaneinu Ramah.