Yaakov’s journey and its lessons for us

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Vayeitzei

This week revisits the rigorous journey of our forefather, Yaakov, as he departs from the spiritual haven of the Holy Land for a solitary expedition, crossing the border into Haran, where his uncle resides. The Torah provides two explanations for the name Beer Sheva — one in reference to the oath (shavua) during Avraham’s covenant with Avimelech and the other due to the seventh (sheva) well dug after Yitzhak’s peace treaty. Both explanations signify a state of tranquility. In contrast, the destination’s name, Haran, indicates the fierce anger (charon af) of the world.

The juxtaposition of Be’er Sheva, signifying tranquility, with Haran, hinting at global turmoil, mirrors a metaphorical journey — a passage from morality and serenity to a corrupted environment. On the surface, the verses relate a challenge for the individual who feels lonely or insignificant in a giant, ominous world. Commentaries note that Yaakov’s journey is emblematic of the Jewish people’s historical exile — forced from their homeland, scattered globally and enduring antisemitism. Yet, the underlying theme highlights that it is precisely through Yaakov’s grit and resilience within a hostile environment that the House of Israel will ultimately be built.

Upon arrival

As he reaches the border of Israel, he finds a place to camp. “He arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] around his head and he lay down.” This unusual wording of “arrived” shares a common root with the word meaning to entreat or to pray (Jeremiah 7:16), leading to the explanation of how this phrase subtly communicates what Yaakov did when he first arrived — he prayed. The Talmud further notes a hint at the origin of establishing a fixed time for evening prayer in Jewish tradition.

Upon arriving, perhaps Yaakov should have unloaded and relaxed. Or perhaps he should have prepared for the new stage in life, investigating the people, or the local customs, fashions and so forth. Yet, despite all apprehension and unfamiliarity, his first step was to pause, reflect and pray — an acknowledgment that success transcends human effort alone. This provides a fundamental lesson: When faced with significant challenges or new stages in life, the initial action should be one of prayer, recognizing that divine assistance determines ultimate victory.

Our most precious possession (the mind)

The next instruction is gleaned from placing stones around his head. What exactly is the Torah conveying with such a peculiar image? Rashi, the more literal commentary, states that Yaakov was protecting himself from wild animals. But if he was simply concerned about physical danger, why did he place the stones only around his head — why not the rest of his body?

The deeper message is the notion of standing guard over your mind: Yaakov traveled to Haran knowing the place and people would be far different than in his homeland. More specifically, while working for Lavan the Aramite, the archetype of selfishness and deception, Yaakov’s integrity would be tested. So, placing stones around his head was a personal signal that nothing and nobody was going to affect his head. (And if his head was straight, so his feet would carry him to where he needed to go.)

Broader applications

The act of placing stones around his head, ostensibly for physical protection, serves as a metaphor for safeguarding mental space. This is particularly relevant in the tumultuous landscape of today’s world. As Jews in America, the question of how much attention we should devote to the news has become an internal struggle. On the one hand, we cannot live in a bubble and ignore the global turmoil. On the other hand, internalizing the current events and trends has become overwhelming. The need to stay informed thus competes with the potential for anxiety that the constant influx of negative information can bring. And often, we can’t tell the distractive and emotional effects until we’ve consumed the information — and by then, it’s too late.

This dilemma is particularly poignant in the aftermath of the attacks in Israel. The scenes are so harrowing that few sensitive minds can absorb the images and accounts while maintaining a stable perspective. It’s a delicate mental balancing act: How much should one attempt to shield oneself from the harsh realities by retreating into a semblance of normalcy and how much should one confront the existential shifts and threats that demand our attention?

Because the mind is the primary conduit for the soul, its fragility or lack of protection can impair many aspects of our functioning. Conversely, safeguarding your mental space, especially in dark and difficult conditions, is central to our well-being. This mental protection can take on varied meanings depending on the context: staying informed with the news while judiciously limiting exposure to distressing content, spending more time with positive individuals, dedicating specific periods in the day for the study of Torah, focusing on gratitude and more.

Remaining ‘rock solid’

The above image — “placing stones around his head” — has an added detail that signifies more than just filtering or nurturing our intellectual faculties; it conveys how maintaining wisdom and clarity is dependent on a solid and unbendable commitment (i.e. kabalat ol) to what we hold dear. Who are you at the core? Where do you come from? What do you choose to focus on?

As it pertains to the current political climate, we have awakened to a bitter reality and are grappling with the weight of collective trauma. Each person is navigating the shock in their own unique way, often concealing the internal struggle from others. The once-prevailing illusion of safety within the free world has been shattered for many, compelling them to confront their sense of vulnerability. Some within the Jewish community strive to preserve their assimilated identity, ignoring the echoes of the past and resisting the sudden reminder of their distinction. Others find themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum, grappling with apocalyptic anxieties and attempting to forewarn others. Most, however, find themselves somewhere in between, negotiating a delicate balance in the face of a shifting reality.

Like Yaakov, we will inevitably face tests of whether we will influence or be influenced, whether we will keep our heritage alive and continue to stay connected to our mission or be swayed and shaken. The message in his journey this week is that true happiness and success, especially in difficult environments, is an inside-out process that begins with the ability to bring our deepest values and identity to the forefront of our consciousness.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayan-chai.org.

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