Parshat Vayetze: Genesis 28:10-32:3; Hosea 12:13-14:10.
When I started my rabbinic school year in Israel in 2010, my first trip to Jerusalem was spellbinding.
My adopted Israeli family had kindly offered to pick me up at the airport and then hosted me for a few days at their home in Rehovot. They then (again, very kindly) drove me and my two giant suitcases into my new home city.
As we approached Jerusalem, there was a final highway ascent before we passed huge stone letters forming a sign on our right: Bruchim Haba’im, or “welcome” in English. I loved seeing this Hebrew monument — and only loved it far more when, on my first exit from the city, I saw there was a corresponding goodbye sign which read Tzeitchem L’shalom, “go in peace.” While “bruchim haba’im” is, of course, in Hebrew (and was, therefore, exciting), it is also a rather basic everyday phrase — while “tzeitchem l’shalom” is from a higher linguistic register, as well as making an obvious reference to our Shalom Aleichem prayer that many Jews around the world recite every Shabbat evening. Reading that sign, I felt like I knew a special insider secret and delighted in the living Jewish text by the side of the road every time I passed it by.
This sign immediately sprang into my mind as I opened this week’s parshah, whose first word and title is Vayetze — a different conjugation of that same verb from the sign, to go out or to exit. This word has taken on a different tone in the age of COVID. I was struck by how the portion is bookended by Jacob’s freedom to go out, to change locations — all maneuvers increasingly complicated if not downright dangerous to perform today. Never before has that opening verse (Genesis 28:10: “Jacob left Be’er Sheva and set out for Haran”) held my attention for longer than an instant.
But this year it reads differently. There is definitely a sad note as it reminds us of what we can’t do, of what’s been lost in this moment. But perhaps this text is also an awesome reminder of the spirit of love and indeed pikuach nefesh (saving a life) with which we can redefine our staying in.
This Thanksgiving week is a difficult one to be restricted in our movement. I am disappointed not to be joining my family for our annual Thanksgiving get-together in Wilmington, N.C. But it is an act of devotion to community to forego the fun rather than risk getting someone ill.
I hope that soon we will be going out just like Jacob again — without having to give it a second thought. But in the meantime, when you must go, tzeitchem l’shalom — may you go in peace, with your masks and your hand sanitizer, and return safe and healthy.
Rabbi Megan Brudney is a rabbi at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township.