I always think of this time of year as a time of transition. The trees are almost finished shedding their leaves and the air is charged with the smell of winter. We ourselves are transitioning from the vestiges of the High Holiday season of teshuva and gratitude to the modern world’s all too long season of consumption.
In Vayetze, we read of the famous Jacob’s Ladder and his receiving of God’s blessing. He vows his loyalty and faith to God, “.... If God will be with me ...and gives me bread to eat, and clothing to put on ... then shall the Lord be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21)
While Jacob could have asked for anything, he asks only for bread and clothing. Radak, a 12th century commentator, wrote that Jacob asked only for the bare necessities of life. He didn’t even ask for water because one can find water to drink, on (and in), the earth. The Kli Yakar, a 16th century commentator, puts it even more starkly, saying that Jacob asked for the essentials, no more and no less.
As often happens, the Parsha’s message is remarkably relevant for this time of year. We have entered into the season of consumption. Do we really need all that we buy, all that we own?
I look around my house and I can see so much that I do not need. The mass of possessions in my home make me feel spiritually and creatively stifled as well as embarrassed. Who am I to require so much “stuff?” I know that I am not the only one to be in this situation nor am I the first. Proverbs 30:8 states “... give me neither poverty nor wealth, provide me my allotted bread...” This implies that all we need are the basic necessities lest we are so deprived that we need to resort to theft and so sated that we forsake God.
For some, Jacob’s request of bread and clothing may seem like too little in a world filled with so much and with people who have so much ambition. The Sages also recognized the simplicity of this request and instructs us to translate the word bread to mean Torah (Breisheit Rabbah). There is no stinginess in considering the Torah as a bare necessity of life; in fact it signifies depth and largess for our souls.
Each morning in Shacharit we recite the following prayer, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all the worlds, who acts for all my needs.” The Sages would recite this prayer as they were putting on their shoes. Why? Because shoes were made of leather and therefore a luxury. If one could afford shoes then one’s other basic needs were being met. Today one could argue that in our world of plenty shoes are a necessity and if a luxury, then a low-level one at that. But we must remember that while we are in a time of perceived plenty and invented want, there are many who do not have enough bread to eat nor the money for sufficient clothing.
Let us take Jacob’s example and realign our lives. Let us be content with the material basics and aspire to spiritual riches. Let us share what we have with those who are in need. Let us turn this season of consumption into what our lives and time are meant to represent – generosity and caring.
A version of this dvar has been published in the Washington Jewish Week, December 8, 2016