Between the Lines—Va-yeishev

Insights from Midrash with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Genesis Rabbah 84:4

וישב יעקב וגו', אברהם גייר גיורים, הה"ד (בראשית י''ב) ויקח אברם את שרי אשתו...ואת הנפש אשר עשו בחרן. 'אשר עשה' אין כתיב כאן אלא 'אשר עשו' - א"ר חוניא אברהם היה מגייר את האנשים ושרה מגיירת את הנשים, ומה ת"ל אשר עשו אלא מלמד שהיה אברהם אבינו מכניסן לתוך ביתו ומאכילן ומשקן ומקרבן ומכניסן תחת כנפי השכינה
יעקב גייר גיורים, דכתיב (בראשית ל''ה) ויאמר יעקב אל ביתו וגו' ויתנו אל יעקב וגו'. ביצחק לא שמענו והיכן שמענו? רבי יצחק ותאני לה משום רבי הושעיא רבה בשם ר' יהודה בר סימון: כאן כתיב, וישב יעקב בארץ מגורי אביו (בראשית ל''ז) מאי מגורי אביו מגיורי אביו


"Jacob settled [in the land of his father's sojournings, in Canaan." (Gen. 37:1) Abraham converted proselytes, as it is written, "Abraham took Sarai his wife . . . and the souls that they had made in Haran." (Gen. 12:5) . . . 'That he had made' is not written, rather 'that they had made.' R. Hunia said: Abraham converted the men and Sarah the women. That phrase also teaches us that our ancestor Abraham would bring them into his house, feed them, give them drink, and bring them nearer to the presence of God.

Jacob, too, converted proselytes: "Then Jacob said to his household, [and to all that were with him: Rid yourselves of the alien gods in your midst] . . . and they gave to Jacob [all the alien gods that they had]" (Gen. 35:2) Regarding Isaac we have not learned (of similar activity), so how do we infer [that Isaac also converted proselytes?] R. Isaac, or perhaps R. Hoshaya, taught in the name of R. Judah b. Simon: It says here, "Jacob settled in the land of his father's sojournings" (Gen. 37:1)—what are meguray aveev (his father's sojournings)? [Read that phrase instead as] megioray aveev (his father's proselytizings).

As a ba'al teshuvah, albeit an idiosyncratic "born-again Jew," I find in this midrash great inspiration to share my ongoing spiritual journey with others, especially seekers who aren't Jewish. As a Conservative rabbi, I am proud to report that my denomination has recently begun to embrace the kind of keiruv (outreach) activity that this text presents as the "family business" of those who established our faith tradition. We must now adopt assertive push-and-pull methods, like those described above, to attract our fellow travelers.

According to several playful interpretations, Jacob inherited a legacy of missionary work, a vocation that gave birth to monotheism. While the meguray/megioray wordplay reveals little about Isaac's role, R. Judah b. Simon claims that Isaac must have done something to continue his Abraham's proselytizing and to instill that fervor in his son Jacob. At the same time, grandfather and grandson are imagined as undertaking very different pursuits.

On the one hand, Abraham employs hospitality to nurture potential converts physically and spiritually and to provide the shelter of God's presence, literally "under the wings of the Shekhinah." On the other hand, Jacob challenges his audience to separate themselves from the objects and practices that keep them distant from the Oneness of God. Instead of warmly embracing these individuals without judgment, Jacob sternly preaches that they must renounce an "alien" way of life in order to enter God's covenant with Abraham.

Synthesizing these two approaches will require creativity and sensitivity, but chiefly it depends upon our openness to a new direction for Judaism. The ambivalence and mixed messages of our tradition present an obstacle (today more than ever) to men and women who desire full spiritual citizenship as Jews. Let us follow the example of those who came before us by leading these men and women home and by confronting those who would stand in their way.