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Parashat Vayeshev: Unsettling

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Rabbi Marc Katz

Rabbi Marc Katz is Associate Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He is the author of The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort. His writings can be found on his website www.rabbimarckatz.com.

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יֵּ֣שֶׁב יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ מְגוּרֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו בְּאֶ֖רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן׃

Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned,
the land of Canaan.

Our Parasha this week begins with one of the scariest words in the Hebrew lexicon: וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב / vayeishev, “he settled.” Surveying the entire Bible, our ancient Rabbis understood that the act of “settling” often spelled doom for those engaged in it:

 

  • At the foot of Mount Sinai, the people “settled down” to eat and drink and celebrate the creation of the golden calf only to meet calamity later as God punished them for their faithlessness (Exodus 32).
  • While wandering in the desert, the Israelites “settled” in Shittim and got involved with a group of Moabite women who guided them toward idolatry. Soon those Israelites who strayed from God were put to death for their disobedience (Numbers 25).
  • Solomon “settles” into his kingship in peace, but after allowing his wife to build an altar to the Moabite god Chemosh, God “raised up against Solomon an adversary, Hadad the Edomite” (1 Kings 5:5; 1 Kings 11)
  • Later in Jacob’s life, he “settles” down in Egypt with his family (Gen. 47:27). Just two verses later, the text announces his imminent demise. The same thing happened to Joseph soon after he “settled” (Genesis 50).

 

Though these disparate episodes in Jewish history seem disjointed, they, in fact, share one critical feature: each act of “settling” involves a certain degree of complacency. The Israelites grew too comfortable with themselves which allowed corrupting forces like idolatry and licentiousness to make their way into their camp. Solomon forgot that he might someday lose his power and let members of his household sin. Jacob puts down permanent roots in Egypt, forgetting to hope that his act of settlement is only temporary.

Knowing this background, it’s not surprising that for generations, people have read the seemingly innocuous beginning to our Torah portion, “Now Jacob was settled in the land” as portending misfortune and suffering. And they were right. After “settling” in the land, Jacob’s beloved son Joseph is sold into slavery and Jacob is led to believe that Joseph is dead.

The key to understanding Jacob’s folly lies in the way he is compared to his father Isaac. While Isaac is a sojourner, Jacob is a settler. Where Isaac’s is defined by wandering, Jacob embraces inhabiting. While Isaac dwells in transience, Jacob lives in permanence.

According to our tradition, the Land of Israel is a place that we are always involved in settling but in which we should never feel settled. Writing in the early 17th century, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz echoed this sentiment in his work, Sh’nei Luchot Habrit:

The moral lesson is that just as strangers must not take for granted their right to live in their host country, so Jews must not take for granted their entitlement to the Holy Land not even after they have settled there. When our sages criticize Jacob of whom the Torah said: "Jacob settled down in the land of Canaan," this is exactly what they had in mind. The fact that the Torah underlines in that very verse that Jacob's fathers had only sojourned there, only reinforces our sages' criticism.

The issue is complacency. We are constantly struggling not to take our land for granted. Instead, our job is to grow, to always strive within for improvement and self-discovery. When we sit still, we become fossils. When we move, we shake off the dust and continue to blossom.

When our ancestors settled in the land, they lost track of its majesty, they misunderstood its holiness, and they missed opportunities for progress. Yet, these risks of growing settled are not confined to Biblical times. Jewish history is defined by cycles of complacency and crisis.  Perhaps Chaim Weitzman, Israel’s first president, said it best: “Politics is life and movement, not standstill and apathy. A policy of wait and see is like a messianic belief of a new kind.”

Weitzman’s warning is echoed in the rabbinic warning: “The righteous seek to dwell in tranquility. Said the Holy One: ‘What is prepared for the righteous in the world to come is not sufficient for them—they seek [also] to dwell in tranquility in this world?!’”  That is to say: enduring prosperity has no place in this world. When times are good and we forget our quest for betterment, we live in the mirage of heaven on earth. When we convince ourselves that we can stand still on the escalator of history, often the only way we can go is down.

Trouble follows when we look around and congratulate ourselves on a world not yet complete. Israel is a modern miracle yet we are not done founding it. We never will be. Settling is not an option. There is a chasm between the country that is and the land that could be. Have we done enough to work toward peace? Have we opened our eyes to gender inequality? Are we troubled by acts of hatred and xenophobia? Are our hearts moved toward justice?

Life is lived best in motion. Countries work best when they keep moving. 68 turbulent years after Israel’s independence, it’s easy to want a break, but the follies of Jacob, Solomon, and Joseph teach us not to let the moss grow too thick. No place is heaven, yet. As football legend, Lou Holtz once said, “In this world, you're either growing or you're dying, so get in motion and grow!”

 

Sources for Further Study

(1)

כל מקום שהוא צער אומר וישב, לשון צער הוא וישב ישראל בארץ מצרים בארץ גשן וגו' ויקרבו ימי ישראל למות (בראשית מז), וישב העם לאכול ושתו ויקומו לצחק וגו' ויפול מן העם ביום ההוא (שמות לב), וישבו לאכול לחם והנה ארחת ישמעאלים (בראשית לז), וישב יהודה וישראל לבטח (מלכים א ה), ויקם ה' שטן לשלמה (מלכים א יא), וישב ישראל בשטים ויחל העם לזנות (במדבר כה) וכן אתה פותר את כלם ברעה הזו, ואף כאן וישב יעקב ויבא יוסף את דבתם רעה

Wherever the texts says, וישב / “he settled,” it connotes suffering. For example:

Israel settled in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen, etc.” (Gen. 47:27) [And then:] The days of Israel’s death drew near (Gen 47:29).

The people then settled down to eat and drink, and they got up to amuse themselves, etc. (Exodus 32:6). Then: [About three thousand men] of the people fell on that day (Exodus 32:28).

They settled down to eat food (Gen. 37:25a). And then: [They looked up and saw] suddenly an Ishmaelite caravan [that was coming from Gilead,] (Genesis 37:25b).

Judah and Israel settled in security (1 Kings 5:5) [and then,] God then stirred up an antagonist against Solomon (1 Kings 11:14).

Israel settled in Shittim—and the people began to act immorally. (Numbers 25:1).

In the same way, you can explain all of them in a negative light. And here too, Jacob settled, [and following that it states,] Joseph brought back evil reports about them to their father (Genesis 37:2).

               Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 1

(2)

It is clear in our context, that Abraham's descendants, i.e. Israel, were meant to become strangers and subsequently slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. At a later stage in their history they would become strangers in their own country. This is why God emphasized that during these first four hundred years or part thereof they would be strangers in someone else's country. Afterwards they would be strangers just as David described himself as a stranger in the Land of Israel. The moral lesson is that just as strangers must not take for granted their right to live in their host country, so Jews must not take for granted their entitlement to the Holy Land not even after they have settled there. When our sages criticize Jacob of whom the Torah said: Jacob settled down in the land of Canaan, this is exactly what they had in mind. The fact that the Torah underlines in that very verse that Jacob's fathers had only sojourned there, only reinforces our sages' criticism.

Rabbi Isaiah Hurwitz (1565-1630, Prague -> Land of Israel), Sh’nei Luchot Habrit, Lech Lecha 42

 

(3)

Politics is life and movement, not standstill and apathy. A policy of wait and see is like a messianic belief of a new kind.

Chaim Weitzman, “Zionism Needs a Living Content,” in The Zionist Idea, ed. Arthur Hertzberg

 

(4)

האדם נקרא הולך שצריך לילך תמיד מדרגא לדרגא ואם לא יעלה למעלה ירד מטה ח“ו כי בלתי אפשר שיעמוד בדרגא חדא.

A person is called “one who is moving,” (הולך / holech) because he must always progress from one level to another. If he does not ascend, he will inevitably fall, Heaven forbid, for it is impossible for a person to maintain the same level of personal standing.

Vilna Gaon (1720-1797, Lithuania), on Proverbs 15:24

(5)

Lech Lecha: Go forth—A person is defined by his walking, and indeed a person must always move up, level by level. One must always aim to extract oneself from habit, from the state of the normal. Even if one has reached a certain standard of Avodat Hashem (religious intensity and practice), that too becomes second nature after a time and becomes the norm. Therefore, at all times one must renew one’s soul and one’s religious direction.

Sefat Emet (R. Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, 1870-1905, Poland)

(6)

בשעה שהצדיקים יושבים בשלוה, ומבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה, השטן בא ומקטרג. אמר: לא דיין שהוא מתוקן להם לעולם הבא, אלא שהם מבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה. תדע לך שהוא כן.

The righteous seek to dwell in tranquility. Said the Holy One: “What is prepared for the righteous in the world to come is not sufficient for them—they seek [also] to dwell in tranquility in this world?!”

               Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 84:6