Shabbat-Table Talks: Vayese

To read last year's Table Talk on Vayese click here.


By: Rabbi Ralph Tawil <>


Value: Being satisfied with minimal physical requirements. We are fortunate to live in one of the most affluent periods in history. Although we might feel that we often cannot “make ends meet,” that might stem from the fact that we have become more demanding in our “needs.” Being aware of our minimal needs and being satisfied when those are fulfilled is a very important lesson to being a happy person. Having an awareness that some of our “needs” are other people’s luxuries and still other people’s wildest dreams, can help us be satisfied when we are not able to provide ourselves with these luxuries. Having a sense of one’s minimal needs can also help us gain perspective on how we expend our efforts and resources.


Background: This week’s perasha begins with Ya’aqob fleeing his murderous brother ‘Esav. Ya’aqob was traveling light. According to his retrospect on his flight from Canaan, he had only his staff in his hand. He also had with him two blessings, one of great material prosperity (the blessing that Yishaq originally wanted to give to Esav) and one of the spiritual legacy of Abraham (the blessing that Yishaq all along intended to give to Ya’aqob.) Forced to camp for the night, Ya’aqob had a vision of a “sulam” (usually understood as a “ladder,” but might have originally meant a ziggurat-like structure) planted on the ground whose top reached the heavens. Angels were ascending and descending the “sulam” and Hashem was standing above it (or above him). Hashem promised Ya’aqob many things. The next morning Ya’aqob awoke and made a vow. Let us compare Hashem’s promise and Ya’aob’s vow.


Text: Hashem’s promise—Genesis 28:13-15

And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave until I have done what I have promised you.


Text: Ya’aqob’s vow—Genesis 28:20-22

Jacob then made a vow saying: If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.


Discussion:  Notice the differences between God’s promise and Ya’aqob’s vow. (God promises Ya’aqob, land, many descendants, prosperity and protection. Yet Ya’aqob only asked for the minimal things; protection, food, clothing and return to his father’s house).


Why didn’t Ya’aqob ask for all the things that God had promised him in the vision? (Ya’aqob focused on his immediate plight. He wanted to survive and return home. That was all that was important for him. All God’s grand promises were all beside the main point of Ya’aqob’s survival and safe return to his father. He therefore prays only for the bare minimum of survival. He would see that as sufficient for him to be grateful to God.)


Ya’aqob was able to put his needs in perspective and to focus on the most important ones. That was all that he asked from Hashem. At times, we turn our “wants” into “needs,” and feel disappointed when these “needs” are not met.


Discuss with your children how you can know when something is a “need” or a “want.” (One way is to imagine what would happen if it were not fulfilled. Take examples of things in your life and apply that analysis. Do you “need” a vacation, “luxury car” etc. or “want” a “vacation,” etc.? Then apply the analysis to the things that the children need/want.)


Next, apply the analysis to the things that we already have. How would we feel if we suddenly did not have them? Would we survive? (Can you do without a car, house, TV, books, etc.)


One side benefit of this analysis is that we learn to appreciate the things that we have.


From this analysis, we see that we could make do with much less than what we have.  It is nice to have these things, but we could survive and even do well without all the things that we have.


The following is a story that is found in many folk traditions (including Jewish folk stories) that presents this point (perhaps to an extreme.)


A rich man who owned much property fell seriously ill, and though the doctors came to him from all over, none of them was able to cure him. His situation grew worse and worse, and all hope had been given up for him when one day a traveling dervish saw him and said, “put a truly happy man’s shirt on his back and he will get well.”


The sick man’s family and servants went looking for a truly happy man in town and could not find one, because there is no man whose happiness is complete. The sick man’s favorite son, however, was determined to save his father’s life by finding such a person, and so he left town and went looking elsewhere. He walked and walked until he reached the desert. By then, it was nighttime, and tired from his journey, he wished to sleep. Seeing a cave, he decided to seek shelter there, and when he reached it, he heard a voice say form within, “How happy I am! What a wonderful day I had! And now I think I’ll go to sleep.”


Hearing this, the son was delighted to have accomplished his mission so soon. He entered the cave, strode quickly to the man inside it, and was about to ask the man for his shirt when he realized that the fellow was naked and did not even have a shirt. At a loss, he stood there dismayed. “What is it?” asked the man. “What do you want?”


“I heard you say you were a happy man,” said the son, “and so I wanted to take your shirt, because it alone can save my father’s life.”


“But if I had a shirt,” said the happy man, “I wouldn’t be happy!”

(From The Spirituality of Imperfection, Kurtz and Ketcham, pp.173-174)


Discussion about the story:

Explain the happy man’s final statement. Why would having a shirt lead to his not being happy? (This could be along the lines of “he who has many possessions has many worries,” a rabbinic idea found in Pirqe Abot.)


Of course, we are not advocating living naked in a cave as the ideal. Yet, we can emphasize that the material things that we own are not very important. We could make do with much less, if we have to.



1)     Maybe the food does not taste exactly the way that I like it, I am happy to have any food at all. (One thought that I use concerning food, is that in the Nazi labor and death camps the food situation was such that you felt lucky to have gotten the smallest piece of vegetable in the dirty water that passed for soup.)

2)     Maybe we had to park a little bit further away from the entrance than we would have liked, yet, I am happy to have a car.

3)     Maybe we would have liked to be with a person for some more time, yet, I am happy for the time that we had with him.

4)     Maybe I would have liked to buy that special new toy. I am still happy for having any toys at all.

5)     Maybe I would have liked to win that game, yet I am happy to be able to play it.


To read last year's Table Talk on Vayese click here.


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