Vayeitzei: The ‘I’s have it

Vayeitzei: The ‘I’s have it

Middle school principal and school rabbi, Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, New Milford

At the beginning of this week’s portion, Jacob leaves Beersheva and sets out for Charan in impending darkness, stopping to rest for the night. He takes one of the stones on the ground and lays down on it to fall asleep, dreaming about a stairway and God’s ministering angels ascending and descending. At this point, God promises to give Jacob and his descendants the land upon which he lies, that they will be spread out over the earth, and that all people will be blessed through him and God’s commitment to always be with him.

We are a bit mystified, however, by Jacob’s choice of words when he awakens from his dream and declares, “‘Surely the Lord is in this place, ve’anokhi lo yadati.” As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes, anokhi means “I,” the subject of the sentence which is repeated as part of the verb “yadati,” meaning “I knew.” That extra subject is superfluous. To translate the sentence literally, we would have to say, “And I, I knew it not.”

So, why the double “I”? To me, it hints at Jacob’s initial doubt that God is fully present with him. Another colleague tells a story of his older teenage son who became tired of reading bedtime stories to his little sister and decided to record several of her favorite stories on tape. He told her, “Now you can hear your stories anytime you want. Isn’t that great?” The little sister looked at the machine for a moment and then replied, “No, not really. It hasn’t got a lap.” It was not about him reading to her; it was about his relationship with her.

When I reflect on the last several years, I have come to understand the power of God’s constant presence and the importance of community in my own life. If Jacob does not avail himself to his relationship with God, or we do not avail ourselves to having a relationship with God, we are missing out. In the words of the Kotzker Rebbe, “Where is God? Wherever we let Him in.”

As a rabbi, I have struggled to balance my spirituality with the more concrete demands of daily life and work. I am beginning to refocus on being truly present in the lives of those I most cherish. This past Monday, I had the enormous blessing to listen to my 11-year old son read the entire parasha for the first time in front of his classmates at the Solomon Schechter Day School — a preamble to reading for his bar mitzvah in a few years. There’s an old adage, “Time flies when you’re having fun.” But I think the correct adage should be, “Time flies.”

That is why I think the extra “I” in Jacob’s sentence teaches him and us that we need to make time and space to open up our hearts to God, our community, and those we love.

As the late Beatles legend John Lennon once said, “Life is what is happening when you are busy making other plans.” It’s time to book our cherished God, friends, and community into our Google Calendars.

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