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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Parshat Vayeshev – Nothing But Trouble?

Posted by rabbiart on November 26, 2010

According to the Gemara (Sanhedrin 106A) the use of the word Vayeshev indicates trouble  or anguish (Tza-ar or in the Hebrew צער  ) about to happen.  “R. Johanan said “Every place where it is said “vayeshev” it means there is trouble.”  (He quotes several places in the Torah where the usage occurs, and sure enough, bad things happen to Israel).  In Numbers 25 “Israel settled (vayeshev) in Shittim and the people began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab”.  In Genesis 37 (our parshah) it begins “Jacob dwelled (vayeshev) in the land of his father’s wandering” and continues (the end of verse 2) “and Joseph brought evil report of them (his brothers) to their father”.  In Genesis 47:27 we read “Israel settled in the land of Egypt”.  We know what happened there on a grand scale, but two verses later we read “The time approached when Israel (Jacob, that is) would die.”What is it about settling in a place that causes problems? In these three verses we see different kinds of trouble/anguish.  It can be anguish on the personal level; the death of a parent, or any loved one.  It can be familial trouble as in our parshah, envy and conflict among siblings.  It can sexual misbehavior stemming from the loss of the moral compass, whether individually, in a community, or in an entire nation.

R. Johanon is surely not just making an interesting comment on the use of language in the Tanach; he must be going for something deeper and more signficant.  The next part of our opening verse tells us that Jacob settled in the land where his fathers (Abraham and Isaac) lived on a temporary basis (b’aretz m’gurei aviv), or wandered to and fro.  They were in movement, he lived at rest (albeit after a lot of temporary living after fleeing his brother’s wrath).  While Jacob lived temporarily – with Lavan – his life was constantly changing, and – according to the story – he grew both materially and spiritually.  Materially he left Canaan with nothing, and he returned with a full family and what seems like a great amount of wealth. Spirtually – he becomes Israel and he learns to recognize the moments in which he is graced with the divine presence.

But when Jacob settles down, things begin to come apart.  He is too obvious in his love and favoritism to his favored child. He makes a poor decision to send Joseph spying on the brothers who resent him for his dreams of dominance, and most likely for his father’s favoritism as well.   By the end of the chapter his favored son is lost and he mourns his reported death.Rabbi Eliezer Kwass, writing about the Tower of Babel story, observes the following about living in tranquility. “Even the righteous should not expect tranquility and peace of mind in this world, but should focus on action and work.  Ironically, teaches the Midrash, the moment one settles into a comfortable, unconfronted placed…something unsettling will inevitably occur.”

R. Yochanon lived and worked during the early period of the second exile, when the nation of Israel had lost its permanent home.  Arguably, this period is the most dynamic and creative in all of Jewish history.  Religious practice is reinvented, the Mishnah and two Talmuds are created and the basic framework of two millenia (and counting) of Jewish life is brought into being.  He, along with other of our great teachers, is saying that being ‘settled’ is not the way Jewish life is meant to be lived.  Jewish life, on an individual, communal and national level, is meant to be dynamic, active, in movement, in other words un-settled, in order for us to grow.

Although it will take a few more parshiot, we will see Joseph – and his brothers – grow in spirit and understanding, and resolve their familial conflicts, setting the stage for the growth of one Jewish family into an entire nation.

We are living in an unsettled time. There are very few in our community and in our nation – and in our ancient and modern homeland – that are untouched by trouble and anguish.  According to our tradition, this is the natural condition of life, so that we can strive, grow and become what we are meant to be.

Shabbat Shalom

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