Planning for life’s surprises

Rachel LaVictoire,  is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Eliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a sophomore. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center.


I love to plan—my day, my week, my class schedule, my friend’s schedule, you name it, I plan it. From the minute I woke up this morning I knew exactly what my day would look like: 8:30 a.m. alarm, 8:40 roll out of bed, spend an hour getting dressed and cleaning my room, grocery store by 10, library by 11:30, one hour of Hebrew, two hours of developmental psychology…I basically have my day planned out until I go back to my dorm room at 9 p.m. tonight. And this is a normal occurrence for me. My bag is always packed with snacks and I always carry an extra layer in case I get cold. Why? Because there’s comfort in knowing what to expect, and in feeling properly prepared for those expectations. 

I understand that sometimes I can get a little neurotic about my organization. For example, the other week I found a Buzzfeed article titled “27 Signs You’re an Obsessive List Maker,” and laughed my way through it only because of how brilliantly true it is. (My top two favorites: #10 You add things to your lists that you’ve already done just so you can cross it off. #19 Sometimes it feels like making lists is just another way to procrastinate.) 

To my fellow list-makers out there: you know what it’s like; your friends joke about your habits, pop culture websites like Buzzfeed make fun of your habits, and you laugh along, but deep deep down you know you’d be nowhere without your lists because there’s a tiny part of you that’s a little frightened by the thought of being spontaneous and disorganized. Life is easier to handle if you’re the one in control of it. There’s always that question, though, in the back of my head: what could I be missing out on?

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob leaves his home in Be’er Sheba to visit his uncle Laban in Charan. Now, a series of things happens along Jacob’s way: First, he reaches “the place” (Mount Moriah) and because the sun has set, Jacob chooses to sleep there. It is here where Jacob has the famous dream about angels going up and down a ladder. After having the dream, Jacob names the place Beth El (“House of G-d”) and vows to G-d saying: 

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“If G-d will be with me and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear, and if I return in peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my G-d; then this stone, which I have placed as monument, shall be a house of G-d, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You” (Genesis 28: 20-22).  

After making his promise to G-d, Jacob continues towards Charan. Again, he has an unexpected encounter. Jacob comes across a well in the field, and alongside it sits sheep and their shepherds. Jacob greets the strangers and asks if they knew his uncle Laban. The men say they do know of his uncle, and that Laban’s daughter, Rachel would be coming soon with sheep. Then, the parshah reads, 

“While [Jacob] was still talking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherdess. And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel… that Jacob drew near and rolled the rock off the mouth of the well, and he watered the sheep of Laban, his mother’s brother. And Jacob kissed Rachel, and he raised his voice and wept” (Genesis 29: 9-11). 

Rachel then leads Jacob back to Laban. Though his journey is complete, and he has reached Charan, the surprises are not over. Laban offers Jacob work, and Jacob accepts on the condition that when he finishes seven years of work, he may have Rachel’s hand in marriage. Seven years later, the wedding is held, but Laban switches his two daughters, and Jacob unknowingly marries Leah. Still in love with Rachel, Jacob then makes a second arrangement with Laban—he will work for yet another seven years and take Rachel as his second wife. 

So, 14 years after leaving Be’er Sheba in search of Charan, Jacob has two wives, each with a maidservant. Jacob loved Rachel more, “And the Lord saw that Leah was hated, so He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren (Genesis 29:31). In the years to follow, many children were born. Leah gave birth to four sons; Bilah, Rachel’s maidservant, had two more; Zilpah, Leah’s maidservant, had yet another two boys. Then, before Rachel had her first, Leah bore two more sons as well as a daughter. Finally, Rachel gave birth to a son and named him Joseph, saying, “May the Lord grant me yet another son!” When all was said and done, Jacob’s kids were many: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Dinah and Joseph. 

These names may sound familiar, and they should. Much later in the Torah—after the escaping from Egypt, receiving the 10 commandments, and wandering in the dessert for 40 years—the Israelites conquer the land of Canaan and the land is allotted to each of the 12 tribes: Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim and Manasseh. Three names in this list have not been previously mentioned: Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh. Benjamin will be born the son or Rachel in next week’s parshah, and Ephraim and Manasseh will both later be born sons of Joseph, grandsons of Jacob. 

If you haven’t guessed it by now, my intent here is to stress the outcome of the surprises in Jacob’s life. His plan was to go from Be’er Sheba to Charan to visit his uncle Laban. He could not have planned to dream of angels in Mount Moriah, fall in love at first sight, or to be deceived by his uncle. 

We can only plan so much. Like Jacob, we can plan big journeys, have goals and make commitments. But also, like Jacob, we have to be able to embrace the surprises that come our way. I can only hope that my day’s schedule unfolds as planned, but if I run into a friend who wants to catch up, or stumble upon an article that catches my eye, I have to learn to set the plan aside, and allow the surprises to run their course.