Parsha Vayetzei: Fear, Flight, and Freedom

For most people, Thanksgiving is about food, football, and family. For me it has more in common with the themes of this week’s parsha: fear, flight, and freedom.

                The portion begins with Rebecca and Isaac’s concern over Esau’s interfaith marriage. There have been some hard feelings between brothers and the situation is rapidly deteriorating. “Go,” the parents say, “already it’s time to cut the apron strings. You should only find work on your uncle’s farm. Nu, maybe you’ll meet a pretty girl – not like that shiksa your brother married, feh, what does she know from pottage? Settle down before we’re too old to dance at your wedding. Would it kill you to make us grandparents before we die?”

                It’s Rebecca and Isaac’s concern for Jacob’s future that sends him on his journey, not his own desire to leave. Now he’s in the wilderness, alone, away from home for the first time. Remember how that felt? His brother wants to kill him. His parents expect him to make something of himself. He can’t go back and he has no idea what lies ahead. No pressure! At the end of his first day as a full-fledged adult he lies down on the ground and uses a rock for a pillow. He has a dream.

                In this dream God says, “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.” Pretty powerful stuff. Jacob wakes from a deep sleep, shaken, and he says, “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God.”

                It’s difficult for me to talk personally, but I’m going to share with you the story of my Thanksgiving 8 years ago. I was homeless following a quick divorce from a violent man. I lived almost 3 hours from my parents. My ex and I grew up in neighboring towns; for a variety of reasons I accepted his offer to drive me to my parents’ for Thanksgiving. I had a nice day with them, did my laundry, ate my first proper meal in 4 ½ months. My ex drove up honking three hours late. My father hugged me goodbye. “Be safe,” he admonished.

                Halfway home, on a long stretch of back road, my ex stopped the car and tried to force me out. He demanded that I give him my cell phone, tried to push me out of the vehicle, screamed obscenities. While I kept a calm demeanor I thought my heart would beat right out of my chest. He walked around to my side, undid my seatbelt, and tried to pull me out of the car. I knew if I let him force me out into the black night I would not make it home. I had no idea where we were. I braced against the floorboards and clung to the seat bottom staring straight ahead. Someone in a nearby farmhouse must have heard him shouting, for suddenly a light appeared in the distance. He was not a man who enjoyed putting his violence on display; he hurried back to the driver’s seat and sped off.

                By the time we got to my 1990 half-ton pickup he seemed to have calmed down. I thanked him for the ride, put my laundry in the truck, and turned the engine over to warm up. Suddenly he pinned me against the door and demanded my cell phone again, threatening me. I remember clambering into the driver’s seat, kicking at him. I remember my biggest fear as I threw the truck in gear and shut the door was that I would hurt him. I remember the terrifying, determined, murderous set of his features as he clung to the side mirror, running alongside the truck as I backed up, trying to open the door. The wash of relief as he fell off…and the dread realization that he was following me, that I could not go home, that I had to flee.

                The needle read 1/8 of a tank. The orange light was on. 11 miles to town, and I got about 9 to the gallon. I stomped on the accelerator, fishtailing around curves and praying that the roads would stay clear of elk, deer, and other motorists. His new car tailed me, mere inches between us. He pulled alongside, honking and yelling. I braked hard and he sailed past me, then turned across my lane. I put the truck in reverse. He drove toward me in my own lane. I drove forward, passed him, and sped toward town. We played cat and mouse the whole way. He tried every trick – cutting me off, swerving into me, pushing me faster and faster. The needle was on E. I made the call no father ever wants to get. “Dad, he’s trying to kill me. I can’t stop. I don’t have any gas.” We reached the city limits. Surely now, I thought, he’ll settle down. There are police, traffic lights, witnesses. But he was out for blood and we hit Main Street doing over 50, me disregarding lights and he forcing other vehicles onto sidewalks and median strips.

                I called 911. “I’m so sorry!” I sobbed to the operator, “I ran a red light and I’m speeding! I never drive like this!” The woman encouraged me to drive to the police station where an officer would be waiting for me. The station was on the other end of town. Somewhere between downtown and the hospital a squad car pulled him over.

                That man tried to kill me two Thanksgivings in a row.

                I’ve heard people say time and again, “God doesn’t make bargains.” It’s true, we’re supposed to pray at all times, not just in dire straits. I remember pleading that night for strength, for clarity of mind, for safety. And I remember not feeling alone. When Jacob woke up from his dream that first cold, lonely night away from home, he made a bargain with God. He said, “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house – the Lord shall be my God.” You do your part, I’ll do mine. You know what that’s called in the Torah? A covenant.

                The Torah is more than a guiding light. It stands as a reminder that we are not alone, no matter what we’re going through. Worried about your children? So were Rebecca, Isaac, and Laban. Enmity between siblings? Feel like you’re walking in someone’s shadow? Esau knew about that. Are you lonely, uncomfortable, working hard but getting nowhere? Jacob’s been there. He wrestled with some tough stuff – literally! And he triumphed because his faith in that covenant was stronger than his fear. “Remember, I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go.”

                Fear, flight and freedom. They’re the reasons we have Thanksgiving! A group of people fled from the fear of being burned as heretics and came to a new world to be free. Think how scary it is to meet somebody new. Now imagine having an entire tribe of strangers to dinner. They don’t talk like you, dress like you, or pray to your God. But without them, you wouldn’t make it through the winter. Dinner is the least you can do, and hey, it’s potluck! I’m sure the blessing over the first Thanksgiving included similar words to Jacob’s as the Pilgrims experienced true freedom from fear. “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of the Lord!”

                I’m so thankful to be here. I’m thankful to have hot water and a toilet. I’m thankful that I’m safe. I’m thankful that I have enough. I’m thankful for people who love me, and I’m thankful for God who upholds promises. “Surely, the Lord is present in this place.” Everywhere, all the time. Baruch atah, Adonai, hatov shimcha ul’cha na-eh l’hodot. Blessed are You, Adonai, Your name is Goodness and You are worthy of thanksgiving.

                Shabbat Shalom.

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