Two Meanings of Maturity: Rabbi Weinreb on Parshat Vayetze

How do you define “maturity”? The dictionary definition asserts that it is a state of being full-grown, ripe, or fully developed. But I think that the common man gives a subjective definition to maturity in one of two other ways.

Maturity, depending upon whether one tends to be idealistic or leans toward cynicism, seems to carry one of the following meanings:

Either one takes the position that maturity is associated with the wisdom gained from experience over time. From this point of view, the mature person is one who has learned from all that has happened to him and has developed, if not an infallible system that answers all questions, then at least an approach to life which is practical, informed, and wise.

Or, one takes the position that maturity is the state reached when one realizes that his childhood dreams were just that: dreams, and no more. One who is mature has learned to abandon youthful ideals, surrender impractical hopes and plans, and settle for reality and its limitations.

Which definition of maturity is yours, dear reader? Is maturity associated with wisdom? Or is the mature person the one who has learned to live a practical and cautious life, without ideals and utopian dreams?

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayetze, we have the opportunity to read about the maturation of our patriarch Jacob. The portion begins with a dream, a sublime dream. Toward the middle of the portion, Jacob dreams again, this time a very businesslike, down to earth, practical dream.

Jacob’s first dream, the sublime one, envisions a ladder firmly rooted into the earth but extending heavenwards. However one interprets it, and creative interpretations abound, it is a majestic glimpse of infinite possibilities, of ideals of immense significance. If anything, it is a grand imaginative symbol of the relationship between man and God, and of the former’s potential to connect with the latter.

But then, Jacob spends his years working for his uncle Laban. He is busy with mundane affairs; in his own words, “scorched by heat all day, and freezing at night.” He is busy, nay preoccupied, with business affairs, with profit, with practical material matters.

And he dreams again. But the second time, his dream is far from sublime. He sees “that the he-goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled, and mottled.” Things are going his way in the world of sheep-raising. Every trace of another higher world is missing.

If Jacob’s second dream would end at this point, we could say that he matured in the second, cynical, sense. His initial dream was a lofty one; his subsequent dream, a comedown. His vision was diminished, from a glimpse of Heaven to earthly things.

But his second dream does not end with his vision of goats, speckled or otherwise. Rather, an angel appears to him and says that he, the angel, has observed Jacob’s dream and has “noted all that Laban has been doing to you.” The angel in the dream is the better part of Jacob himself, the part that realizes that Laban’s environment has contaminated his dreams.

The angel in the dream then goes on to say that he represents the God of Bethel and that it is time for Jacob to “leave this land and return to his native land.” It is time for him to become mature in the first sense. It is time for him to reclaim his first dream and to do all that he can to make that dream real.

Jacob reaches true maturity when he decides not to yield to the temptation to compromise upon his original dream. When he realizes that his dreams are not what they once were and that he has lost his youthful vision of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, he does not merely settle for his new reality.

Rather, he learns, and this lesson is imparted to him by God Himself, that one must not surrender to mundane dreams, abandoning old ideals. He learns that he can return to the dream of his youth. And he learns not only that he can go home again, but that he must go home again.

There is, of course, another lesson that he learns. And this is an eternal lesson for the Jewish people. The dreams of our national youth, the visions of our biblical heroes and of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, can only be achieved in the Land of Israel. The dreams of the Diaspora are apt to be mundane, shortsighted, and a bit selfish. The dreams of the Land of Israel are noble dreams, exalted dreams, and dreams which ultimately connect us to heaven. Indeed, the dreams of Israel ideally connect all of the earth’s inhabitants to their Father in Heaven.

We can revisit the dreams of our youth. We can go home again. The Land of Israel is the land of our dreams, and it is home. This is one lesson learned from this week’s Torah portion: a lesson about being a Jew, and a lesson about true maturity.