By Rabbi Yisroel Shusterman
Philosophers have long struggled with the great question of our freedom of choice on the one hand, and our belief in a higher destiny on the other. Is life determined by fate, or do we enjoy genuine freedom?
Generally, Judaism would seem to subscribe to a personal freedom in matters of morality, faith and the ethical choices we make in life. But when it comes to things like life and death, and even health and wealth, much as we would like to think we are in the driver’s seat, we do seem to be subject to forces beyond our control. Where we live, how long we will live, how comfortably we will live—these are all in G‑d’s hands. Where we can and must choose is what kind of life we will lead. Whether it will be a G‑dly, righteous, upstanding, decent and honest life—this is up to us, and us alone. G‑d steps back to grant us the freedom to determine how good, how kind and how Jewish we will, or will not, be.
In this week’s Torah portion of Vayeitzei (Bereishis [Genesis] 28:10-32:3), we read a passage And Jacob lifted his feet and went on his way (Genesis 29:1). This verse tells of Jacob’s journey in his escape from the wrath of Esau. He was en route to Haran, where he would eventually establish his family and lay the foundations for the Jewish people. But why the curious language, “And Jacob lifted his feet”? Does the Torah really need to tell us that in order to move, we have to first lift our feet? Was he stuck in a swamp or something?
So many of us look at our circumstances and shrug our shoulders, “Nu, what can you do?” If we were born into poverty or raised in a less-than-privileged environment, we resign ourselves to being doomed to failure. So many people have told me that they were part of the “lost generation” of Jews who had no Jewish education or upbringing. Their immigrant parents were so busy surviving in a new world that they had no time or headspace to raise their children with the Jewish value system they themselves had back in Europe. Tragically, these individuals felt that, Jewishly, they were lost forever.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom) tells the story of how, as a young philosophy student at Cambridge, he traveled the world visiting great leaders. When he came to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe asked him what he was doing for the Jewish students at Cambridge. He began by saying, “In the circumstances I currently find myself . . .” whereupon the Rebbe interrupted him and said, “No one ‘finds himself’ in circumstances. We create our own circumstances.”
Of course, there are times when we will find ourselves in circumstances beyond our control; but throughout life, we will find ample scope and opportunities to improve our own circumstances. G‑d gives each of us our own unique qualities, talents and potential, and it is up to us to use and develop these gifts. Life is full of inspiring examples of individuals who have overcome disabilities and disadvantages of one kind or another. In the Jewish world, many have risen to prominence from the humblest beginnings. The Torah is the birthright of every Jew. We just have to go out and claim it.
The words of our Parsha are quite deliberate and well-chosen after all. “Jacob lifted his feet and went on his way.” Some people follow their feet wherever they will take them. No matter the direction, they simply coast along, allowing their feet to lead them.
Not so Jacob. He was master of his feet and master of his circumstances. He set his feet on the right road, and became master of his destiny.
May we all be inspired to lift ourselves beyond our circumstances and move on and up in our lives.
(Excerpts from Chabad.org - by Rabbi Yossy Goldman)
May you have a meaningful and uplifting Shabbos!