Our Torah portion this Shabbat, Parashat Vayetzei, opens with Jacob beating a hasty exit from his family’s house. We know exactly why Jacob left home so hastily. He was fleeing the wrath of his slightly older, twin brother Esau. In last week’s portion, Jacob stole Esau’s birthright as first-born by tricking their father Isaac into bestowing the blessing upon him. Hence our portion opens with Jacob fleeing home. In one of the most dramatic passages in all of Torah, the scene of Jacob’s first night away from home, he lies down for the night in a strange place. He dreams a dream that still captivates our imagination to this day. He envisions a ladder stretching from heaven to earth, upon which angels of God are descending and ascending. The dream seemingly spooks Jacob, who awakens with a start, as he comes to recognize the presence of God in his life.
There is so much to say about this powerful story and its many lessons. In the shadow of the horrific events of this past week, I am drawn to focus on Jacob’s reality, namely that Jacob is fleeing for his life, fearing what Esau might do to him. We can understand Jacob’s fear of Esau, and we can understand Esau’s bitterness. In one respect, Jacob’s journey is to go and find himself, before he can return home to become the person and the patriarch he is meant to be. We all take this journey. For some it’s literal leaving. For others it’s about more of an intellectual or spiritual trek.
In this week’s portion, Jacob becomes a refugee, leaving behind all he has known, from all that is familiar. We have been hearing a great deal about refugees in recent months and years. It is hard for me not to see some connection between our portion, and the amped-up discussion about the refugees of our day. There can be no doubt that last Friday’s horrific attacks in Paris have heightened anxiety levels and concerns about resettlement of the growing number of refugees, from Syria, the Sudan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is crucial for the leaders of nations in which these refugees seek asylum to carefully screen those who come seeking refuge. Yet we are seeing these refugees turned into a political football.
In a world in which the horrors of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks around the globe are rarely far from our consciousness, it is understandable that concerns are being raised about would-be terrorists using the cover of legitimate refugees to gain access to countries and cities in which their intent is to murder innocent people and wreak havoc and destruction to advance their perverted world-view. Providing strong safeguards and caution in protecting their citizens is the responsibility of the leaders of every nation. Yet, there is also a broader responsibility. There is a common, humanitarian responsibility we all share towards those fleeing for their lives. We must not ignore that these same terrorists have turned their wrath and destructive impulses upon their “brothers and sisters.”
In our portion, as Jacob is jarred by his dream on that fateful first night of his journey, he takes some comfort in God’s assurance, “Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15) The overwhelming majority of the refugees of our day want the same assurance. For me, this is where the ladder of which Jacob dreamt comes in. That ladder represented a bridge between heaven and earth, between the Divine and our human realm. It is vital that, even as we take extra precautions to see to the safety of our own citizens, we also build that ladder. We must then become the beings who descend and ascend that ladder. We must become the representatives of that higher moral, humanitarian responsibility to care for our fellow human beings when their lives are endangered, or they have nowhere to turn. Like our father Jacob, the refugees of today want to know they are not alone as they undertake a journey to uncertainty.
We must fight the evil of ISIS and the terrorists they inspire. At the same time, let us not lose sight of the reality that the refugees fleeing for safety want to feel God’s presence. We can be that presence. Fighting the evil cannot deter us from being the ladder which can bridge heaven and earth, and bringing those seeking safety to a sense of the security Jacob felt as he continues his journey from the spot of his dream.