Vayetze

1. SHABBAT SHALOM

2. The difference between Jacob at the beginning of our Parsha and Jacob at the end is as different as night and day. By the end of Vayetzi, Jacob is the father of 12 children, 11 boys and one girl (he will have one more boy later), he is the husband of two sisters and he is a very wealthy man, having acquired many sheep and goats. He is a man of means and power. He has an entourage of many shepherds and servants and although he has to flee from the presence of his father-in-law when he is pursued, he stands his ground and defends his family.

3. At the end of the parsha, Jacob is a strong and powerful man. At the beginning he is alone and weak. He is sleeping out under the stars, fleeing from his angry brother and certain he will never see his family again. Without the protection of his family, he worries about bandits robbing him, he worries about where his next meal will come from and he wonders who will hire someone with the kind of reputation for deceit and deception that he carried in his character.

4. It is the weak, defenseless and alone Jacob that goes to sleep and dreams of a ladder spanning earth and heaven. It is the scared and worried young man that hears God’s voice in a dream telling him that he is destined for greatness. In the morning, armed with nothing more than this promise, he vows that “IF God will protect me and give me the food and necessities that I need, THEN I will be loyal to God and will give God a tithe of all that I have.” We have to ask, why does Jacob make such a vow to God when God has already promised him divine protection? Is this Jacob, the deceiver, once again trying to manipulate someone to do what Jacob wants? Does Jacob ask for too much or does he only ask for what he needs? Just what kind of a man is Jacob? Has he learned the lesson from his deceit of his father or is being a con man, now going to be a part of his character? Jacob has a difficult journey ahead of him, as Jacob slowly but surely rebuilds his character, hour by hour one day at a time.

5. Character is not a word that we hear about very often. In fact, the only time we really hear about it is when someone is questioning the character of someone else. We endured a political season when everyone was disparaging the character of his or her opponent; each thought that they would build up their own character by tearing down the character of their opponent. But the reality is that when we try to destroy the character of someone else, we are, in reality only destroying our own character. Our character is the only real thing that we own. And no matter what someone else says, nobody can take it away from us. It can only be tarnished by our own deeds and the way we conduct our own lives.

6. Usually we talk about the “worth” of a person. When we talk about how much a person is “worth” we think we are talking about net worth, the amount of money that man or woman earns and how well they have invested their savings. By this gauge, Jacob, at the beginning of the Parsha, is not worth very much. He has no money, no valuables and no real job training. Shepherds were the low wage earners in his day. How much training does it take to watch sheep? Jacob has never hunted nor has he had any job outside the family chores. But if we only see Jacob’s net worth, we miss the most important part of the story.

7. As the Parsha unfolds, we see that Jacob is not all that bad a guy. When he alone moves the rock from off the well, a rock that usually needed four or five men to move, we see that he is not as weak as we were led to believe. He proves to be kind and sensitive, a rare trait in ancient days for men, and it will be a trait that serves Jacob well. While he has a reputation for defrauding others, we find him now honest and, if anything, a bit too trusting of his father-in-law. He is a good husband, a good father and a really good shepherd.

8. Net worth is really not a very good indicator of character. Sam Waltman, who became one of the richest men in the world, on his death, left a legacy of his children fighting over his fortune. All of his wealth did not prevent his family from unraveling after his death. Or perhaps we should look at Microsoft’s founder, Bill Gates. For a while, it seemed that his legacy would be a company that devoured all the competition. Who would have guessed that Bill Gates would retire so that he could manage the charitable foundation he founded, a foundation that gives away more money than some countries have in their national budget! Bill Gates no longer stands for the corporate boss; he is now one of the world’s premier philanthropists. It is not about how much money one has, it is about what we do with whatever money we have.

9. Newsweek recently reported that the amount of money it takes to make people happy in the United States of America, is $75,000 a year. More than that does not make anyone any happier. Even Warren Buffet, the man who is the most successful investor in the country, wants to be remembered as the man who encouraged others to give away part of their wealth. “Who is rich?” asks the Mishna, “The one who is satisfied with what he has.” The person who only wants more, who only wants everything that everyone else has, will never be happy. Being rich is a state of mind, not a balance in a checkbook. What is important is character.

10. We can say the same thing about fame as we say about fortune. The many famous people who have checked themselves into Rehab for drugs and alcohol grows longer every year. Movie stars and athletes rise fast and fall even faster. Tabloids feed us a constant stream of lurid affairs and nasty divorces, of families touched by tragedy and disaster because the famous think that fame will protect them. They get invited to all the fanciest parties but they can’t take control of their lives. “Who is honored?” asks the Mishna, “The one who honors others.” it is not what you get but what you give that matters.

11. Paul Newman had a long and storied career. He was an actor who was in great demand his whole life. He had his choice of what roles he would play and had so many awards for his acting that he became a legend in Hollywood. He was also married to only one woman his whole life. Apparently, he didn’t let his fame intrude on his love of family. He made a living acting, so when he decided to go into business and use his name and face to sell groceries, all the proceeds of those sales, all the profits that they generated, went directly to charity. While others wanted to wax rich through their endorsements, Paul Newman used his endorsements to make the world a better place. It is all about character.

12. I like to tell the story of a young girl who listened in as her mother entertained an elderly woman known for her kindness and concern for others. When the elderly lady left, the little girl said to her mother, “If that is what being old is all about, I wouldn’t mind getting old at all!” The mother watched the gentle lady walk down the street and said to her daughter, if you want to be like her, you better get started right away. She does not impress me as someone who became that kind and gentle overnight.”

13. Character is not something that we can obtain at a store. We can’t order character on the internet and have it delivered right to our home. Character is something that we build, every day we are alive. It is the result of a lifetime of good decisions, of kind responses and being open and honest with others. Character is not only what we give, but what we forgive. Character is not just about what we get, but what we choose to forget. Character is knowing that “nice guys finish last” and still being nice – and realizing that being first is not always that important.

14. A person of character understands that real “net worth” is not about money but in how much we give of ourselves to our community. A person of character understands that business is not as important as family. A person of character does not assign value to things, but assigns the highest value to his or her relationship with others. The late Rabbi Bernard Raskas once wrote, “it is not what we have but what we are that makes life worthwhile. All the riches in the world cannot gild poverty of character. The worth of a person is determined by the way he relates to his responsibilities in life. We should measure worth not in financial terms, but in spiritual terms, in all major areas of personal responsibility.”

15. Everyone here knows that retirement can be just one long vacation, days spent lounging and gossiping at the pool, nights spent eating out and being entertained at the clubhouse. But that kind of retirement is not the life of a man or woman of character. Even in retirement, the time we donate to good causes, the time we spend helping our neighbors and extending our hands to those in need, giving rides to those who don’t drive, giving comfort to those who are alone, sick or grieving, and standing up for those who can’t speak for themselves, these actions are the building blocks of a person of honor. If we make these actions a part of our lives, the actions will then speak of our character.

16. Jacob has some serious flaws in his character, flaws about deceit and fraud that will follow him his whole life. But he learns to grow beyond his flaws and, in the end, it is not his flaws that we remember. It will not be Jacob the trickster who will become famous; it will be Israel, the Man Who Struggled with God, who will be the patriarch of the People of Israel. Therefore, we have no need to worry that we are not perfect and that we may have made some terrible decisions in our lives. We should not dwell on the mistakes that we have made, but we should focus on how the lessons of our failures can help us grow in the future. We can still leave a legacy of kindness and compassion, but only if we start today. Character is not something that can be built overnight. It is built, one deed at a time, day by day, hour by hour until the day that we die.

May we all live good, honest and faithful lives, lives decorated with kindness and caring, and may we leave that as our most precious legacy to our children and grandchildren. As we say,

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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