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The Weekly Commentary of JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning

Parashat Va-yeishev 5764
Shabbat Hanukkah
Genesis 37:1 - 40:23
Numbers 7:1 - 7:17
December 20, 2003    25 Kislev 5764

Jacob's life is a search for blessing and more importantly, a blessing that will culminate in peace. Knowing full well that his blessing was acquired through deception, Jacob seeks uncategorical recognition - a legitimacy that Esau grants him in last week's parashah. Indeed, Jacob desires the fulfillment of blessing in his own life. Sadly though, his life proves to be just the opposite. He is forced to flee home as a result of Esau's murderous intent. Lavan deceives him. He returns to the Land of Israel trembling as he is about to confront his brother Esau. And then his daughter, Dinah, is the victim of rape. One can only have extreme pity for this tragic biblical figure. Yet through it all, Jacob is determined to achieve a peaceful retirement. Then, just as we, the readers of Torah, believe it cannot get any worse for our patriarch Jacob, tragedy strikes once again.

Parashat Va-Yeshev introduces the Joseph narrative which guides us through the balance of the Book of Genesis. As the parashah opens we read, "And Jacob settled in the land of his father's sojournings, in the Land of Canaan." (Genesis 37:1). Rashi, the prolific medieval commentator quotes a collection of midrash entitled B'reishit Rabbah in commenting on the verse, "Jacob sought to settle in peace, but then the trouble of Joseph overtook him. Generally, the righteous seek to dwell in peace. God rebukes them saying, 'is it not enough that they will dwell in peace in the world to come?!?'" Although this midrash teaches a typically rabbinic theodicy - namely that we justify the suffering of the righteous in this world by imagining their reward in the world to come, this commentary also gives us pause to think more deeply about Jacob's desire for peace and his tragic misstep.

Accordingly, I want to offer a rereading of the opening verse of our parashah that grounds itself in the theory of 'family systems' (a discipline of psychology which seeks to understand the behavior of individuals by exploring the entire family system in which the individual is nurtured). Rather than understanding "Jacob settled in the land of his father's sojournings (eretz megurei aviv)" literally, I propose a more figurative interpretation based on 'his father's sojournings.' What caused the sojournings of our patriarchs? It is the favoritism of one child over another that leads our ancestral families down a destructive path. In essence, Jacob falls into the same trap as his father and grandfather before him - favoritism: "for Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than all his children." Such favoritism plants seeds of destruction within the family - separating siblings from one another and worse yet, causing enmity and estrangement. The Hebrew root of megurei, sojournings is ger, stranger. So long as our ancestors singled out one child over another, they become sojourners - leading themselves down a path to exile. It was in Jacob's hands to become conscious of this pattern and to blaze a better path for his own family. Sadly, he chooses not to defy the inertia.

Parashat Va-Yeshev challenges us all to think about the notion of shalom and specifically shalom bayit - peace within our own families. To realize such a lofty goal it is our responsibility to become conscious of and break destructive patterns that plague our families from one generation to another. Only then can we, as individuals and as a nation, avoid another descent to slavery in the land of Egypt.

With wishes for a Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi