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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parashat Va-yeishev
Genesis 37:1–40:23
December 4, 2004     21 Kislev 5765

This week's commentary was written Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow

The opening verse of this week's parashah begins the Joseph narrative which will carry us to the conclusion of Genesis. Even more significant, these opening words highlight an issue at the heart of Jewish history and Jewish life. In Genesis 37:1 we read, "Jacob settled (va-yeishev) in the land of his father's sojournings (megurei aviv), in the land of Canaan." The Hebrew word va-yeishev means 'he settled'; it is a verb that speaks to a sense of rootedness and permanence. On the other hand, a few words later, we encounter the Hebrew megurei meaning sojournings - a word that at its root (gar) echoes strangeness and impermanence. The irony is that Jacob seeks to build permanence in a land of impermanence.

Our lives, both on a national and personal level, often play out between these two poles - between home and wandering. Why is the Torah so deliberate in stating "the land of his father's sojournings" when it could have quite simply stated that Joseph settled in "the land of Canaan" without any further qualification? In his parashah commentary Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, Professor Ze'ev Falk z"l, suggests a number of compelling resolutions for this quandary. Indeed, the verse suggests there is something deeply foreign in Jacob's relationship to the land. Falk writes, "perhaps in the aftermath of the rape of his daughter Dinah, Jacob feels alone or it is likely that he waxes sentimental for the land of his ancestors, Haran, [where he spent some twenty years of his adult life]." Two other possibilities are suggested by Falk: Since the verse neglects to mention God's promise concerning the land as being given to the descendants of Abraham, it is likely that Jacob did not rely on this divine oath. Finally, Falk writes, that maybe since the verse underscores his father's sojournings it suggests that Jacob's sole connection to the land is through his ancestors.

Jacob's alienation from the land of Canaan is surprising. If there is one location in the ancient Near East where an Israelite should feel at home, we believe it should be in Canaan - the land that God promised to Abraham's descendants. Yet, we see Genesis 37:1 alluding to a striking distance between Jacob and the land. In a brilliant insight, Professor Falk suggests that Jacob's alienation comes from a variety of sources - mistreatment by the locals, a longing for the land of his ancestors, an inability to trust in God's promise and a realization that he does not have a relationship to the land independent of his ancestors.

Home is truly a complex concept. Inherent in this notion is both rootedness and alienation. Surely, all of us can relate to this inherent tension in Jacob's life. And, while it is a feeling we may experience in communities of the Diaspora, it is often an emotion deeply experienced as Jews in the land of Israel. By being more attentive to the treatment of the other, trusting in God's promise of redemption, and seeking to create independent relationships with home, we can work to create a home - whether in the Diaspora or in Israel - that truly reflects the values of Judaism we hold so dear.

With wishes for a Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz

The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.