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Guiding Angels: Parashat VaYetsei 5763

11 Kislev 5763

Zachary Bell’s Devar Torah

Thank you Rabbi. Shabbat Shalom. Thank you all for coming. I know that some of you have traveled far to be here today and I appreciate it very much. I would like to tell you about the Torah portion for today, VaYetsei (Gen. 28:10 – 31:54), and then focus my thoughts and opinions on Jacob’s famous dream about angels.

VaYetsei begins with Jacob running away from Esau as a frightened young man and ends with his leaving Laban as a married and successful man with a very large family including 11 sons, two wives and two maidservants. It starts when Jacob sets out for Haran escaping his brother’s anger. Before he enters into the new and unfamiliar land, he stops for the evening and in his dream he sees a ladder up to heaven with angels ascending and descending. God renews his promise with Jacob that he had promised to Abraham and Isaac. Jacob names the place Beth El.

Jacob reaches Mesopotamia. He meets his uncle Laban and Laban’s daughter, Rachel. Jacob makes a deal with Laban to work for seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage, but Laban tricks him into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah instead. Jacob must work another seven years for Rachel. While Rachel is barren, Leah gives birth to four sons, Reuben, Simon, Levi and Judah. Jealous of Leah, Rachel gives Jacob her maid, Bilhah, who has two sons with him, Dan and Naphtali. Rachel adopts these sons as her own. Leah then gives her maidservant, Zilpah, to Jacob and she has two sons with him as well, Gad and Asher. Leah has two more sons, Isaachar and Zebulun. Then finally, God, gives Rachel a son, Joseph.

Jacob wants to return to Canaan, his homeland, but Laban does everything he can to prevent his departure. Jacob stays there. He becomes rich and successful. Realizing that his blessings from God are causing great anger among Laban’s sons, he becomes determined to return to Canaan. Without Laban’s knowledge, Jacob gathers his flocks and herds and departs. Rachel takes with her one of Laban’s household idols. God sends a warning to Laban not to harm Jacob, but Laban pursues and overtakes him. In a passionate speech, Jacob scolds Laban for his devious acts and in the end they form a covenant of peace. Jacob goes on his way, and he is met by God’s angels. He says this is God’s camp and he named it Mahanaim.

As you can see, angels begin and end the parsha. I interpret this as showing that Jacob is under constant protection by angels, in this period of time. I’m now going to share with you my understandings of Jacob’s dream and angels.

In the dream, it says that the angels are “ascending and descending.” This has caused controversy because it says specifically ascending first and then descending. Since angels reside in heaven, why are they not descending and then ascending? I agree with Rashi’s explanation. He believes that the angels were already with Jacob. But these angels can only travel so far with him, to the border of Canaan. Now that he is leaving Canaan, new angels with a new mission must guide him.

In a way, this happens in all our lives. When you leave one place, or a stage in your life, you leave behind the protectors and guides of that place or stage, and you face the uncertainty of whether there will be people who will take their place. Jacob was lucky in that new angels were coming down the ladder for him and he had God’s promise that he would be protected.

So what does Judaism tell us about angels? There are a lot of different ideas. The word angel in Hebrew is usually malakh, like in my Maftir when I read malakhei Elokim, God’s messengers. The English word “angel” comes to us through the Greek word meaning “messenger.” These messengers are usually sent from God with a single and specific mission. These missions are usually to guard, protect, rescue or bring a message. Angels are seen as many different things. In another parsha, VaYeshev, Joseph is walking in a field to find his brothers but is quite lost. A being referred to as “a man” appears in the field and asks Joseph who he is looking for. He then guides him to his brothers. Although not called malakh, this man is understood to be an angel. Only by learning what happens later, the consequences of the beings actions, can you tell whether or not they are angels. If God’s wishes are carried out, then it must have been an angel.

Not every person may have the benefit of angels. They usually come to those who have faith and righteousness. God sees them as worthy of his protection.

When Jacob awoke from his dream, he makes a vow to God, the first such oath recorded in the Torah. He says that if God protects him, clothes him, feeds him, and brings him back safely to his home, then he will make the Lord, his God. This is not exactly an unconditional promise, and it seems a very fragile oath. This sounds like Jacob doesn’t really trust God. Is he really worthy of God’s protection? The rabbis offer an explanation for why Jacob sounds so uncertain. It is not that he is uncertain of God’s ability to protect him, but he is uncertain of his own ability to live up to God’s expectations of him. He worries that he will fail God, not that God will fail him.

Just like Jacob as a young man on the brink of new adventures, I as a young man face new challenges. I have my parents’, family’s, teachers’ and friends’ guidance, but I must make my own choices. It is my free will. That’s an exciting but scary realization. Like Jacob, I am aware that I might not always make good choices. I will have to use the guidance and advice I have received to choose the right paths throughout my life. And, like in Jacob’s dream, I hope that there may be new angels that will come to accompany me through the next stage of my life.

One reason to be optimistic about the possibility that I will find the help I need when I need it, comes from family stories that I have heard in which my family was faithful to God and received his protection.

My mother tells me that her Zadie was a very religious man who prayed daily. In his old age, she asked him why he had such strong faith and he told her about the miracles in his life. He was a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army in WWI, when he was shot and seriously wounded. As the army lines were retreating, he was abandoned by his comrades, who left him chocolate to ease his death. Lying in a barn, bleeding from his serious wound, he was discovered by the farmer. The farmer saw the chocolate beside him and offered it to him, but Zadie refused it. He said, weakly, that what he needed was fresh milk, because he remembered being told by his mother, who was a midwife, that milk could help him cough up the blood and heal the wound. So the farmer gave him fresh milk, and in that moment he believed that God was with him. Whether the milk had anything to do with it or not, he was saved. He recovered from his wound and lived into his 90’s. Was this the act of an angel or the strength that comes from faith in angels?

My father’s grandfather, Moishe Dovid, also was miraculously rescued. It is a story that my father told at one of our family gatherings.

Moishe Dovid was a born scholar. He loved Heder and had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. But where would such a mind find the nourishment it needed working on his parents’ farm and living in a remote village?

Moishe Dovid was resourceful. He had heard that there was a great Yeshiva in the big town of Meretz, Poland. If he could get to Meretz, he’d find a way to study at the Yeshiva. Someday he would become a Rebbe. But when he spoke with his parents about his dream, they would not consider it. He was needed on the farm. So, at the age of 11, Moishe Dovid ran away from home.

Not till the family gathered for dinner did they know he was missing. His father hitched up the wagon and drove toward Meretz. As he bumped along the dirt road in the moonless night, he sang tehilim – psalms – so that his son could recognize him. Through the forest he rode, his Psalms interrupted by the howls of wolves. Little Moishe Dovid clung tightly to the tree limb he’d climbed up to for protection. When he heard the songs of David sung by his worried father, he called out, “Here I am, father.” And, as they rode back home together, his father knew that his son’s destiny was to be sought beyond their dairy farm.

Indeed, my great-grandfather studied at the Yeshiva and became a rabbi. His faith had been so strong that he had risked his life for more learning, and he was protected from the dangers of the forest and his father had found him. Did God preserve him for his own purposes?

My great-grandfather, Joseph, lived to 101. He had been a Russian soldier who was captured by the enemy in WWI. He survived the deprivations of being a prisoner of war and the perilous journey back to Russia, only to discover that his beloved hometown of Telechan had been burned to the ground during the upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution. Nonetheless, he found his beloved Hannah, to whom he was betrothed. She was with her family hiding in the woods with only their wagons for shelter.

Later, they were married and chosen by her family to come to America along with her father, through the assistance of her uncle who was living in Baltimore. Against all odds, their love for each other prevailed and allowed them to make a better life for themselves and for their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, most all of whom are here today. Looking back at these events, were angels at work?

Another important figure in my mother’s life is her Aunt Charlotte, a Holocaust survivor. When my mother asked Aunt Charlotte after she had returned from the first reunion of Holocaust survivors why she had remained an observant Jew, she told her story. My great Aunt Charlotte and her family were sent to Auschwitz. Her father, who died during the Nazi occupation, but prior to the camps, admonished his family to stay together at all costs. The sisters were able to stay together through bribery and barter. But, on one occasion, Ebbie, the youngest, was selected for the gas chambers. Desperate to stay alive and be with her sisters, she grabbed the wires of the electrified fence. Miraculously, at that moment, the fence was not electrified. She climbed over, and ran to the trucks. She found the truck that her sisters were in and got aboard. They kept each other alive through the horrors of that place and survived starvation and typhus to eventually start a new life in this country. Their children and grandchildren, some of whom are with us today, are the result of this miracle. Aunt Charlotte has been an example of charity, integrity, good deeds and faithfulness for all of us.

These stories of God’s protection raise as many questions as they answer. You can be a good Jew in our tradition and not believe in angels. In fact, going way back in Jewish history, the Essenes had elaborate beliefs about angels while the Sadducees doubted their existence altogether. I cannot understand why only some have been fortunate enough to receive God’s protection, while so many others have perished. No one can comprehend God’s reasons and ultimate purpose. But, through studying Torah, I can at least know what God expects of me. With the help of my “angels,” I have been given good guidance as to what the right choices are. I know it is up to me to find my own way, just as Jacob did. He had his angels, and I have mine.

I would like to thank my Mom for her energy and organization through the bar mitzva process, but also for her example of how to face the challenges of life while enjoying herself and helping others. I’d like to thank my Dad for so much. The best compliment someone could give me is for them to say that I remind them of my Dad because he has shown me how to treat others with respect and kindness while still having fun. To my brother, Ben, for not minding when I practiced for my bar mitzvah over the breakfast table and in the car. To my sister, Julia, for always believing in me even when I doubted myself. To my Grandpa Dave and Grandma Goldie, who have been the foundation for what I know about being part of a family. To my Bubbie Toby and Grandpa Aaron for emphasizing the importance of good values, good times, and good food. To Sherry for always being there when I need her and even when I don’t know I need her.

I also want to thank those who prepared me for this day. Amy Pincus, Andy Schultz and Hannah Goldfield for tutoring me. Also Liora Lew for organizing the Benei Mitzva Program. And Dr. Kempton for encouraging me by giving me mind-probing questions, or forcing me to think when I wasn’t in the mood. And to Rabbi Tilsen for helping me prepare this Devar Torah.

Finally, I want to thank my friends for helping to bring out the better parts of myself by encouraging me to succeed while always having a good time.

Thank you all for sharing this important day in my life. Shabbat Shalom.

Response of Morris Bell, Zachary’s Father

There is a universal prayer, said by every parent who ever saw their kid run into a busy street, get lost in a store, disappear at an amusement park, or fall out of a tree. “Thank God you’re alright!” Or as my Bubbie Bell would say, “Tenks Gott, you’re all right!”

Listening to your Devar Torah and the family stories of miraculous rescue, I’m reminded of what my mother, your Bubbie Toby, would say after some nerve wracking escapade of mine. She’d say that her mother, who died when I was five, must have been watching out for me. How else could she explain my survival? And believe me, she doesn’t knows the half of what I did!

We are so blessed to have all your grandparents with us today. Their presence seems evidence enough of God’s graciousness. Your Grandpa Aaron’s favorite prayer is the Shehehiyanu. This prayer expresses our thankfulness for God’s protection, that he has preserved us to enjoy this day. And oh, how grateful we are that all our family is here today so that we can look at you and shepp nachas and kvell.

You talked about how you are now responsible for your own choices. In Jewish tradition, until a boy is bar mitzvaed, his father is responsible for his sins. Now, son, your sins are your own. You are responsible for your moral choices, for how you conduct yourself with others, and for the pursuit of your own worthy goals. Mom and I, your family, teachers and friends will support and help, but more and more it is up to you. In that context, how reassuring it is to believe in angels. God’s messengers are arriving; their message of Torah is being delivered, but it remains up to you to invite them in and to listen to their message.

In the Haftora that you chanted so beautifully, Hosea tells us that no matter how much we fail God, he will not fail us. God remains open to Teshuva, to our return. Adolescence is a journey of leaving home and entering into unknown lands. Jacob makes that journey and reveals himself as an all too human young man. My sister, your Aunt Esther, once said to me that the biblical Jacob must be based on a real person, because no one would ever make up an ancestor like him. Yet, if VaYetsei is the story of his personal journey of doubt and confusion, it concludes with his return to his homeland, his Teshuva. Soon he will reconcile with Esau and fulfill his destiny as our patriarch.

And so God through his prophet Hosea offers this poetic vision of our return.

I will be to Israel like dew;
He shall blossom like the lily,
He shall strike root like a tree of Lebanon
His boughs shall spread out far,
His beauty shall be like the olive tree’s
His fragrance like that of Lebanon,
They who sit in his shade shall be revived.

We, who love you and are so proud of you today, wish you safe on your journey. And every time you return we will hear angels say, “Tanks God you’re alright.” And when you face the inevitable doubt and confusion that maturity brings, we trust that you will remember this day — its solemnity, its joy, and its message — and that you will be revived.

Response of Raina Sotksy, Zachary’s Mother

Without embarrassing you, everything about you has been quick from your conception to your first steps at ten months to your fascile use of words at 18 months, to your being the leader of the pack at 18 months as the youngest member of your two year old nursery school class at EBJ. Most people in those days saw you as a highly active child with natural athletic abilities, but few saw beyond this preschooler in constant motion. Your father and I, your teachers and those close to you caught the glimmer of a very sensitive child who would make funny faces so his brother would laugh so that we could give him his asthma medicine or who hugged Grandma Goldie and told her to have sweet dreams at age five. You were seldom demanding except when you were in a risk-taking mood, which resulted in four sets of stitches before the age of five. After the trauma of stitches, you went happily bouncing out of the emergency room. You were often busy making up elaborate games which I would listen to in great detail, never quite understanding, but knowing that it all made sense to you. Even as you have gotten older, that sensitivity has translated into personal late night talks on a wide range of subjects. There’s nothing like it being past your bedtime, for you to become totally engaging and delightful.

As if that were not enough (Dayenu), it was clear at a very early age that you were blessed with precocious development, great visual-spatial abilities, and the ability to process and access information speedily, (you could beat anyone in the family in Concentration). You and I talked at length over the years about your being helpful to others and not impatient when others took longer to master something. Most importantly, however, you have always considered it your responsibility and desire to work your hardest and use your assets to the advantage of everyone. You are a great leader, a superb soccer and basketball player and a fair and earnest friend.

Especially important to you since preschool and to this day have been your friends, many of whom are the same since early childhood. Max Stern was your buddy at EBJ where you planned and plotted very imaginative stories. Jeremy and you have known each other and played together since infancy. Several of your other close friends, Ben, David, Josh, to mention a few, have been close friends since kindergarten and first grade. These special bonds have endured and undoubtedly will continue. You have also been very fortunate to be in a school with a wonderful group of boys and girls who cheer each other on and appreciate each other’s strengths.

Being so peer-oriented, however, created one source of conflict. Many of your friends were Christian, Unitarian, or non-observing. You wanted to be like others. Why couldn’t we celebrate Christmas, you asked in kindergarten. Learning Hebrew was hard and most academic subjects had not been hard for you. With the support of your family and friends, the BEKI community, and consolidated by your fun-filled experience at Camp Ramah and the investment in study and learning for your Bar Mitzva, this conflict appears to have resolved itself.

Like with all other goals that you have set for yourself, you’ve approached preparing for your Bar Mitzva with discipline and motivation. Virtually every night before bedtime for practically a year you would put on your kippah and practice a part of what you have demonstrated today.

You have always made me proud of the kind of person you are and today I am especially proud of your presence, command and coming of age as a young Jewish man.



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