After leaving Beit-El, the Torah says that Jacob "lifted up his feet" and came to Bnei-Kedem (the people of the east).
Why didn't he walk? What does it mean that he lifted up his feet?
Rashi explains that "his heart lifted his feet and walking became light for him.”
Considering he had just spoken with God recently, one can imagine he was pretty elated.
The first thing Jacob sees there in Bnei-Kedem is a well in the open field.
There are three flocks of sheep lying around it.
There is a huge stone on the mouth of the well.
Jacob says to the shepherds, Achai, may-ayin atem?" (My brothers, where are you from?) (?אַחַי מֵאַיִן אַתֶּ֑ם)
(Well, now I'm hooked. Why is Jacob calling these guys, these total strangers, his brothers?
Jacob is fleeing Esau (his twin brother) so it is strange in this context that he should use this word for complete strangers. Usually, in the Torah, the word “Achai” (אַחַי) means biological brothers or a very close relative, like a cousin. We have to continue with the story to find the answer.)
Jacob and the shepherds exchange small talk :
J: Where are you from?
S: Charan (חרן)
J: Do you know Lavan?
J: Is he well?
S: Yes (oh, and by the way, here comes his daughter Rachel)
So THEN Jacob says, "it's still broad daylight, it's too early to round up the animals"
And then he commands them to give water to the animals and go let them graze.
(What?? Now he is *ordering* the strangers to do stuff?)
Back to the story:
The shepherds reply that they can't do what he is asking, because they have to wait until more shepherds show up so they can roll the stone off the mouth of the well.
(Okay so now he knows why they are waiting around, but why did he reprimand them in the first place?
Well, we will learn in a few weeks that Jacob had an amazing work ethic so when he looked at the men he assumed they were avoiding their work. He was planning to criticize them before he spoke.)
And according to Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky in his commentary on the Talmud "Emes leYaakov al HaShas," this is why Jacob called the strangers "my brothers"....
(Okay, there more to it than that.)
Rabbi Kamenetsky says that this is the first time in the Torah that "Achai" is used between strangers.
He says that this is Jacob teaching us a lesson in how to criticize another person when we see them doing something we believe is wrong. He says Jacob called them "my brothers" to show them that he cared about their well-being and his words were coming from a place of concern and not anger or hatred.
(So what can we learn from this?)
When you feel the urge to criticize someone and it is not from a place of genuine concern for the other person, they will feel that and not accept your words.
Speak from a place of love and concern, and your words will reach the other person.
Rabbi David ben Yosef Kimhi (קמחי)
-the RaDak is quoted in the Chumash commentary, Shaarei Aharon, that "Achai" is a message about how we should interact with people. It's a different kind of greeting and it doesn't really matter if you are strangers because it's about connection to another human being.
In Israel today you can hear the word “Achi” (אָחִי) everywhere. It’s like saying “bro,” and literally means “my brother” in both Hebrew and Arabic. It is a cultural way of relating to one’s neighbor - almost like family. Like Jacob speaking to the people at the well there is an unspoken understanding between neighbours.
My personal connection with this week’s parasha is that when I joined City Shul last year, I was a stranger. Literally, "ger" (גֵּר) in a Hebrew means foreigner or convert.
I find it very difficult to talk about this...
I hid my birth religion for years.
So talking about conversion means admitting "out loud, in a crowd" that I wasn't born Jewish -and that is hard. But I'll try.
When I arrived at City Shul last year I had already studied Hebrew and Jewish history, and read Torah and commentaries for years, but I was *not* Jewish. I never lied if asked directly "Are you Jewish?" but I also never offered up that information freely. I didn't celebrate other religious holidays and I posted pictures of my Chanukiah every year on Facebook, so people were free to think what they liked.
However I always felt like a fraud, like I was pretending or misrepresenting myself as Jewish without explicitly saying I was.
I needed to officially convert. Fortunately, this was around the same time City Shul was forming. I had previously been a student at Kolel in 2003, so I recognized our Rabbi's name.
I said to my partner Levy, "THIS IS THE ONE!" It took another year for things to come together, but they did. We joined City Shul and I started the process toward official conversion to Judaism.
Like Jacob at the well, I was a stranger, but it doesn't feel like I am in a strange land.
I feel more at home here than I ever did when I was dragged to my birth family's place of worship. I say birth family because the Jewish people are my new family.
Like Jacob as he left Bet-El, I lifted up my feet as I left the mikveh this past summer, emerging as a new member of the Jewish people.
Finally, who I have always been on the inside is now recognized on the outside.
And I can now say that you are "Achai v'achaiyotai" (my brothers and sisters) because now I am officially part of your family!