Vayeshev: Balancing Acts
Harry Nelson is a Wexner Heritage alumnus from Los Angeles and an attorney at Fenton Nelson, a healthcare law firm, in Los Angeles. Harry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Vayeishev Yaakov B’Eretz Megurei Aviv …” “Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning….” (Gen. 37:1) Buried in the opening verse of this week’s parsha are two competing ideas of how we, as children of Abraham, live.
First: “Vayeishev” – [he] “dwelled.” Second, “Megurei” – “sojourning.” These words share the identical root (shoresh) in Hebrew with the message Abraham delivers to the Sons of Chet in buying a separate burial place for Sarah: “Ger v’Toshav Anochi Imachem” — I am a stranger [Ger] and a resident [Toshav] with you. (23:4)
Vayeishev, like Toshav, draws on the root infinitive “LaShevet” — to sit, conveying a sense of permanence in Jacob’s residing in the land. After a lifetime spent on the run, Jacob has finally settled down in the land, just as Abraham had done. Megurei, like Ger, draws on the root infinitive “Lagur” – to sojourn, conveying a sense of impermanence and temporariness in his father’s wandering in the land.
The Torah is signaling that, Jacob, like Abraham, lived with two contradictory notions of relating to the world: he was settled, rooted, connected and engaged in the place, and yet, at the very same time, in a place where his father was transitory, a short-timer, not wholly of the place.
It’s curious that Isaac of all people is characterized as the transitory one. In contrast to his father and son, Isaac never actually leaves the land of Canaan to go into exile. In his book, Unlocking the Torah Text, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin observes that perhaps Isaac’s preference for Esau (almost cutting short the story of our people!) stemmed from too much connection with the life of the land and a corresponding deficient sense of being a stranger. In this understanding, Rebecca, the literal stranger hailing from Aram-Naharaim, possesses and provides the corrective balance; being both a resident and a stranger, she sees and ensures Jacob’s place as successor.
Taking this a step further, perhaps Jacob didn’t quite match Abraham in achieving the right balance. After all, in contrast to Abraham who declared himself to be both resident and stranger at the same time, the opening verse above describes Jacob passively only as a permanent dweller in the land where his father was impermanent. We see evidence of Jacob’s sons adopting foreign values, most famously in selling their brother into slavery. It is only in the next generation that Judah, the one who wanted to profit from his brother’s sale, serves as the corrective, first as Tamar’s rescuer and then ultimately as Benjamin’s savior.
The tension between permanence and impermanence is essential to our existence as Jews. The model of Abraham may be holding these two ideas in tension, but perhaps the most we can hope for, like the narrative, is to modulate between them. We do so when we flip back and forth between our deep engagement in society and in Yiddishkeit. On a deeper level, we flip back and forth between the week, our “sojourn” in this physical world (physicality, a/k/a gashmius), and Shabbos, a temporary taste of the redeemed world to come (spirituality, a/k/a ruchnius). Too much one way, and we cease to be Jews; too much the other, and we have no ability to impact the broader world.
Recently, besides working on balancing the tension in my own life (too much gashmius in fast-paced life in L.A.), I’ve been wondering how we can effectuate even a mild correction in the trend of Jewish life. My own sense is that, like Jacob, we feel a sense of deep integration in the life of the land, and remember ancestors as the transitory ones. The result is an abundant sense of permanence, but an every growing deficit of impermanence.
Among the many great projects underway that offer a possible channel to greater balance on the permanent/impermanent axes, one that’s captured my imagination lately is the Shabbat Tent (http://shabbattent.com/), an emerging independent movement I learned about from my fellow Detroiter-in-exile and Jewish hero, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein.
The idea of Shabbat Tent is to go to where Jews already are, in significant numbers, at the big camping music festivals, each of which draw tens of thousands of people across the country seeking a spiritual connection in the communal enjoyment of the great jam bands of our time. Taking a cue from Abraham, for three days or so at a time, the Shabbat Tent folks set up a tent and provide open hospitality, from meals and snacks to shade to davening to a space to connect in the midst of a transcendent spiritual experience. In so doing, Shabbat Tent represents an effort to integrate Jewishness and make God’s presence felt in the process. We could use more projects like this across the Jewish world.
May we be blessed to find more balance in every facet of our lives.