For the week ending 13 November 2021 / 9 Kislev 5782

Parashat Vayeitzei

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Fleeing from Esav, Yaakov leaves Be’er Sheva and sets out for Charan, the home of his mother's family. After a 14-year stint in the Torah Academy of Shem and Ever, he resumes his journey and comes to Mount Moriah, the place where his father Yitzchak was brought as an offering, and the future site of the Beit Hamikdash. He sleeps there and dreams of angels going up and down a ladder between Heaven and Earth. Hashem promises him the Land of Israel, that he will found a great nation and that he will enjoy Divine protection. Yaakov wakes and vows to build an altar there and tithe all that he will receive.

Then he travels to Charan and meets his cousin Rachel at the well. He arranges with her father, Lavan, to work seven years for her hand in marriage, but Lavan fools Yaakov, substituting Rachel’s older sister, Leah. Yaakov commits himself to work another seven years in order to also marry Rachel. Leah bears four sons: Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehuda, the first Tribes of Israel. Rachel is barren, and in an attempt to give Yaakov children, she gives her handmaiden Bilhah to Yaakov as a wife. Bilhah bears Dan and Naftali. Leah also gives Yaakov her handmaiden Zilpah, who bears Gad and Asher. Leah then bears Yissaschar, Zevulun, and a daughter, Dina. Hashem finally blesses Rachel with a son, Yosef.

Yaakov decides to leave Lavan, but Lavan, aware of the wealth Yaakov has made for him, is reluctant to let him go, and concludes a contract of employment with him. Lavan tries to swindle Yaakov, but Yaakov becomes extremely wealthy. Six years later, Yaakov, aware that Lavan has become dangerously resentful of his wealth, flees with his family. Lavan pursues them but is warned by Hashem not to harm them. Yaakov and Lavan agree to a covenant and Lavan returns home. Yaakov continues on his way to face his brother Esav.


How Long is the Coast of Britain?

“And he dreamt, and behold! A ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward; and behold angels of G‑d were ascending and descending on it.” (28:12)

Benoit B. Mandelbrot (1924-2010) was a Jewish Polish-born French-American mathematician and polymath. "What is the essence of a coastline?” he once asked. Mandelbrot asked this question in a paper that became a turning point for his thinking: “How Long is the Coast of Britain?”

Mandelbrot had come across the coastline question in an obscure posthumous article by an English scientist, Lewis F. Richardson. Wondering about coastlines and wiggly national borders, Richardson checked encyclopedias in Spain and Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands, and discovered discrepancies of twenty percent in the estimated lengths of their common frontiers. Mandelbrot argued that any coastline is, in a sense, infinitely long. In another sense, the answer depends on the length of your ruler.

“Consider one plausible method of measuring. A surveyor takes a set of dividers, opens them to a length of one yard, and walks them along the coastline. The resulting number of yards is just an approximation of the true length, because the dividers skip over twists and turns smaller than one yard — but the surveyor writes the number down anyway.

“Then he sets the dividers to a smaller length — say, one foot— and repeats the process. He arrives at a somewhat greater length, because the dividers will capture more of the detail and it will take more than three one-foot steps to cover the distance previously covered by a one-yard step. He writes this new number down, sets the dividers at four inches and starts again.

“This mental experiment, using imaginary dividers, is a way of quantifying the effect of observing an object from different distances, at different scales. An observer trying to estimate the length of England’s coastline from a satellite will make a smaller guess than an observer trying to walk its coves and beaches, who will make a smaller guess in turn than a snail negotiating every pebble.”

If we measure our ascent on the spiritual ladder of our life like a snail, we will become disillusioned very quickly, for life has many twists and turns and setbacks. But if we take the satellite view, each one of us can follow in the footsteps of our father Yaakov — the ladder that is set on the ground but whose head reaches the heavens.

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