Who amongst your family were the courageous ones? The ones who emigrated, who left their homes and all that was familiar—safe or unsafe—and took that first, most difficult step towards an unknown fate?
In my family, one of those brave souls was my paternal great-grandfather Naftali Strear. A picture of him shows a man with a short, scruffy beard, wrinkled and worn beyond his actual age, his clothes hanging ragged on his thin body. The sepia-toned photograph depicts an otherwise simple looking soul, and I wonder what he must have been thinking in the days and weeks and months leading up to his decision to leave his home and everything he knew and loved. Did he petition God? Was he pushed to leave by desperation or pulled by hope? Naftali Strear, among the thousands of decisions he made throughout his life, made one momentous decision to change the course of his family’s life. Forever.
This week’s Torah portion, VaYeitzei, tells of another departure. After stealing both Esau’s birthright and blessing, Jacob runs from his home. Unlike Abraham, whose leave-taking is inspired by God, Jacob runs out of fear. Alone, isolated, Jacob dreams of angels and a ladder and wakes to the realization of God’s presence. But Jacob vows to dedicate himself to God not out of gratitude; he does it out of the expectation that he will get something in return: he will dedicate himself to God, yes, but in return God will be with him, protect him, provide for him.
Was my great-grandfather Naftali’s journey galvanized by inspiration from God, or was his journey—and his fealty to God—dependent upon the benefits gained by the journey? Are we not all on a journey, as individuals, as a nation, as a people? Is our journey guided by inspiration or by a sense of entitlement? Is it undertaken with exhilaration or carried out under obligation?
The Torah offers a multitude of journey tales. With which do you identify? Which resembles your own family’s story and what lessons can be learned from Jacob’s journey from deceit to discovery. And what of our legacies? Do our journeys further the values that tie us to previous generations, or do they move us away from those historic roots?
This Shabbat may all our journeys be inspired and may all the steps we take into our futures be lightened.
Rabbi Jay Strear
President & CEO
Please email Rabbi Strear at CEO@JEWISHcolorado.org with comments or questions.