My older daughters take the city bus home from high school most afternoons. It is a 10-minute walk, one 15-20-minute bus ride through a safe neighbourhood, and then a 2-minute walk to our door. They do not complain – except when it’s pouring or freezing – and mostly – I think – enjoy the independence of getting themselves from point A to point B. In the last couple of weeks, however, they have both reported encounters with different individuals on the bus which made them uncomfortable. One man was speaking loudly and trying antagonistically to engage strangers in conversation. Another bumped into my daughter as he moved towards the back of the bus and then mumbled angrily at her.
In this week’s parshah, Jacob leaves his family in Canaan and heads to Haran, fleeing from his brother Esau’s anger at being deceived and not receiving his father’s blessing, and going to find a wife. He falls in love with Rachel and works for his uncle Laban in order to marry her. In his own act of deception, Laban first gives Jacob his older daughter Leah to marry and Jacob is only able to marry Rachel after he works for Laban seven more years. Jacob’s family grows as he stays with Laban, with Leah and the maid servants bearing him many children while Rachel, however, struggles to conceive. For the most part, this parshah is about the daily life of Jacob and his family and the relationships and interactions between the different family members.
En route to Haran, though, Jacob has a dream in which there is a ladder with angels going up and down and God at the top. God reiterates to Jacob the promise of land and countless descendants that He made to his grandfather Abraham. In addition, He promises him safety and security no matter where he goes or what he encounters.
Rashi asks a simple question: If the angels are on the ladder, shouldn’t the text say they were going down and up (instead of up and down) since they originate from above with God?
He explains: The angels who accompanied Jacob while in the land of Israel do not also accompany him outside the land of Israel. So as Jacob left Canaan, those angels ascended the ladder first, and then those who would accompany him into Haran descended the ladder.
We learn from this that one’s experiences at home – be that our own room, house, school or city – are different from when we are somewhere less known, less familiar and less comfortable. When we are outside our regular usual places – outside our comfort zones, so to speak – we need a different set of tools and skills and supports in order to make our way.
As my daughters reported their experiences on the bus, I was struck mostly by how indignant they were – how dare someone behave this way on a bus (and make them feel uncomfortable). Of course, the more time they will spend out in the world, the more of these encounters they will experience and the more tools and skills they will hone to cope. While my heart hurt a little on their behalf and I had a teeny tiny twinge of guilt for indirectly exposing them to this kind of “hardship,” my brain quickly reminded me that they were never in any danger and these are the experiences that build up character and fortify them. I reminded them of all the ways they could help themselves feel safer in these situations – such as move closer to the bus driver or to a woman with children. And I reminded them that the behavior they experienced on the bus had nothing to do with them, nothing they did wrong.
With the image of God at the top of the ladder as the angels change shift, we understand that Jacob always had protection from God, no matter where he went. Similarly, no matter where we are, there are also always sources of help to seek out. And most importantly, there are certain basic traits, such as kindness and respect and compassion, that we should take with us wherever we go.