Parashat Vayetze: Religion and belongingness

Identity is partially composed of our personal traits, values, achievements, dreams and aspirations. However, these components form only one part of our identity.

 José de Ribera - Jacob's Dream (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
José de Ribera - Jacob's Dream
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Jacob barely escapes his homicidal brother Esau, fleeing from his family, penniless and alone. Traveling at night to a faraway sanctuary, he is uncertain about his future and uncomfortable about his past.

Though his mother supported him and promoted his interests, his father always favored his violent older brother. Even though Jacob secured his father’s blessings, he never received his father’s explicit endorsement. As Jacob departed for the unknown, he was still unsure whether his father endorsed his behavior.

Carrying all that pain, uncertainty and feelings of abandonment, Jacob flees to a safe refuge, hiding from his angry and vengeful brother. His nighttime journey is probably the loneliest scene in the entire Book of Genesis.

Lost and bewildered, Jacob goes vertical, dreaming of a heavenly ladder. Observing the angels hiking up and down, he realizes that he is no longer alone. Positioned atop the ladder, God assures Jacob’s safe voyage and guarantees his ultimate return to Israel. Realizing that he now journeys under the watchful eye of God, Jacob becomes more confident in his future prospects.

Before he dreams of the ladder, Jacob discovers an additional anchor for his journey. The midrash narrates that suddenly he realizes that he walks where his grandfather Abraham once prayed. Halting his voyage, he, too, prays on this sacred ground, the very mountain of courage where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice it all.

‘THAT SAID, the final chord of Jacob’s Ladder has yet to be played.’ (credit: TNS)‘THAT SAID, the final chord of Jacob’s Ladder has yet to be played.’ (credit: TNS)

Between his heavenly dream and the memory of his grandfather, Jacob no longer travels alone. Protected by God and accompanied by the memories of his legacy, he is filled with belonging and with purpose. With refreshed determination, he sprints to his uncle’s house, brimming with confidence and optimism.

Empowered by his new sense of purpose, he hoists a heavy stone covering a well of water, single-handedly lifting a load that an entire team of herdsmen couldn’t budge.

A lonely and frightened traveler has now transformed into a confident and formidable provider. He has been empowered by his meeting with God and by his unexpected encounter with his past. He feels as if he belongs.

Belongingness

Identity is partially composed of our personal traits, values, achievements, dreams and aspirations. However, these components form only one part of our identity. Additionally, we form our identity based upon the larger groups and institutions to which we belong.

Human beings have a primal need to belong to something larger than themselves. Social scientists refer to this as “belongingness.” Biologists trace this inner need to the evolutionary advantages of belonging to a tribe. In a harsh world of survival of the fittest, membership in larger groups assured safety, shelter and food. Psychologists trace our need to belong to an inner loneliness which produces an unrelenting desire to bond with ideas and people beyond our own small lives. Either way, human identity is forged not only through personal experience and personal values but through belonging as well.

Belongingness also shapes religious identity. As individuals, we yearn for a personal and private relationship with our Creator in heaven. We search for Him in the heavens and in the solitude of our souls. However, we aren’t just individual creatures of God, we also belong to a long and illustrious lineage of people who found God and lived according to His will. Religious identity is carved from personal belief coupled with collective belonging. Since we received the eternal word of God at Sinai, our religious experience has been draped in human traditions transmitted across time. Practicing those traditions along with the actual word of God enables our collective national belonging and forges religious identity.

For this reason, masora, or the collected traditions of Jewish ritual life, is crucial to successful religious behavior and identity. The norms and conventions of masora may not be legally institutionalized in the same manner as Halacha proper, but they anchor us to our heritage, convey belongingness and enrich religious experience.

Whenever we adapt Jewish practice to changing realities, we must take care to also preserve traditions and masora. Altering a tradition may not violate Halacha and may also serve a larger beneficial purpose. However, rearranging traditions can also disrupt historical continuity and sever us from belongingness.

In addition to belonging through religious traditions, we also belong through affiliation with our national historical project of representing God in this world. Throughout the ages, we have paid a heavy price for disseminating knowledge of God to a resistant and often hostile world. Identifying with that historical project also generates historical belongingness, which, in turn, deepens religious identity.

Unbelonging

Modern man feels less “belonged” than ever before. The modern world stresses personal identity but devalues collective experience. Political democracy and personal and economic freedom have strengthened personal identity at the cost of the identity of belonging. The ideas and groupings to which human beings once belonged have begun to fray. Religious belief has diminished, national narratives have been shattered, and value systems have become muddled.

In the past, people had a clearer sense of belonging and possessed a well-defined notion of which culture, religion or nation they were associated with. These associations have weakened, and in the absence of more meaningful belonging, people latch on to superficial groups of belonging such as sports teams or political parties. Without authentic belonging, human experience is becoming brittle, and identity is becoming less sturdy.

The modern challenges of belonging are severely damaging religious identity. It is difficult to craft successful religious experience solely through personal identity without belonging to Jewish past and to the overall world of Judaism. In a world of unbelonging, attempts to build religion solely based upon personal experience are faltering.

In previous eras, multiple generations lived in the same city, providing a geographical anchor for belonging. In today’s mobile world, we are constantly migrating to new communities, rarely spending our entire lives in one location. We rarely attend the same schools as our parents, and we rarely pray in the same synagogues. There is less in our lives for our children to latch on to.

Recently, I was asked which subject is most neglected in Jewish education across North America. As a rabbi, I was expected to select an area of Torah study that is overlooked and deserves more attention. Instead, I encouraged greater investment in the study of Jewish history. The current crisis of religious identity is, in part, a product of unbelonging. Studying additional Torah texts will not always create more belonging. Knowing our past and sensing our role in our future just might.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik penned a famous religious essay titled “The Lonely Man of Faith” which captures the private odyssey of religious experience. Have we become too lonely, and is this damaging our faith? Can we be more successful if we don’t build religious identity alone? ❖

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.