Shabbat VaYishlakh: A Personal Aliyah Moment

This week’s parashah is VaYishlakh, “he sent”. In it we find ourselves deep into the story of Jacob, the third of the Patriarchs. He has just survived a night struggle with an angel, and then a long-delayed anxious meeting with his brother Esau. In the verses just before we begin (since we are reading the 2nd third of the parashah this year according to our Triennial Cycle), Jacob has promised Esau he will come visit, and then immediately hurried in the opposite direction. 


This reunion of the twin brothers after twenty years must have caused them both a certain amount of emotional upheaval, yet we don’t hear about any effect on Jacob afterward, at least not directly. Rather, the three verses with which we start are peaceful:


יח  וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם, אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, בְּבֹאוֹ, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם; וַיִּחַן, אֶת-פְּנֵי הָעִיר.


18 Jacob came in peace to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and encamped before the city.

יט  וַיִּקֶן אֶת-חֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר נָטָה-שָׁם אָהֳלוֹ, מִיַּד בְּנֵי-חֲמוֹר, אֲבִי שְׁכֶם–בְּמֵאָה, קְשִׂיטָה.

19 He bought the parcel of ground, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred pieces of money.

כ  וַיַּצֶּב-שָׁם, מִזְבֵּחַ; וַיִּקְרָא-לוֹ–אֵל, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.  {ס}

20 He established an altar there, and called it El-elohe-Israel. 

Directly after these few words, Jacob’s life will again be full of upheaval, anger and tragedy. As he will tell Pharaoh many years from now, his years are short and full of pain. But here, in these three verses, we have a sense of serenity. Just like Abraham, he traveled from the East and bought a bit of ground upon which to pitch his tent. And just like both Abraham and Isaac, he built an altar. In effect, Jacob has just made aliyah: he has “gone up” to Israel from Paddam Aram.


In Jewish tradition, three verses are the minimum length of an aliyah, the ritual Torah reading which is preceded and followed by the Torah blessings. And here is the small insight that comes from this quiet moment in Jacob’s stressful, sad life: a moment of blessing is always possible. Our lives may feel as if we are reeling from shock to disappointment to urgency to hassle to, finally, sadness and stress. But if you can find a moment, one small moment during which you can stop and take a breath, it need not be very long – just long enough to feel the blessings that surround you despite the difficulties.


Try giving yourself this spiritual aliyah moment: three deep breaths. With the first, think of coming in peace – what is your wholeness? With the second, consider the grounding of your tent – where do you dwell? With the third, connect to your sense of the holy – what do you revere? 


And in that way, may you feel the blessing that precedes you and follows you, and keeps your soul safe in the world.

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