Parshat Vayeshev

“Settling the Heart, Settling the Land”

By Tamar Frankiel, Ph.D., AJRCA President


“And Yaakov settled” (Gen 37:1).   Settled?  asks the midrash.


In the previous parsha, the rape of Dinah followed by the slaughter of the Shechemites by Shimon and Levi led Yaakov to uproot his family.  En route to their new location Rachel died, and Yaakov renamed Benyamin against her wishes.  Perhaps, after this tumultuous arrival back in the Holy Land, now he could “settle down.”  But instead, another un-settling development follows: the rivalry between Joseph and his brothers.  Indeed, this will cause an emotional fracture and geographical separation in the family that will not be repaired for twenty-two years. The midrashic question points out with irony that Yaakov may now be physically settled; but in other dimensions of his life, he is not.


Settled?  is a question that we can hear resonating down the millennia of Jewish history.  Settled in the promised Land?  Twice in ancient times, each temporary.  Settled in other lands?    Most of the time we were living as aliens in unfriendly territory where we could not even defend ourselves without fearing that, as Yaakov said when his sons responded with vengeance to the rape of their sister, “they will gather themselves against me and smite me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house.”  A fear that all too often became real.


Finally, after two thousand years, we did settle.  The dreamed-of yishuv took root and bore fruit in our original homeland, Eretz Yisrael.  But, settled really?  Not only are we once again threatened by neighbors, and other settlers in the land who are viciously bent on our destruction; we also continue to be fractious among ourselves.


The patriarch Yaakov, the midrash tells us, fervently wished for unity.  He could not be “settled” without it.  He prayed that all his children would be part of the covenant.  Unlike Avraham and Yitzchak, who each had one son to inherit the covenant and one who did not, Yaakov begged G-d that no one be excluded.  We can imagine also that he would not want his children to suffer the jealousy that he had seen between himself and Esau, or Rachel and Leah.  The tragedy of Joseph shattered those hopes.


Family unity is also at the heart of Joseph’s dream, even though it portrayed him ruling over his brothers.  The apparent claim to rulership antagonized his brothers and nearly ended Joseph’s life.  Instead, he was separated from the family’s settled life.  But ironically, as the story unfolds, it was the exiled dreamer, Joseph, who held the dream until it could be fulfilled.  “If you will it, it is no dream” (Herzl).


Another story that is tucked into this parsha adds dimensionality.  Breaking off suddenly from Joseph’s story, the text proclaims, “Judah went down” (Gen. 38:1) – down to the sheep-shearing.  But it is also a spiritual descent.   Judah is humiliated: his daughter-in-law Tamar seems to be some kind of witch, as her husbands, Judah’s sons, sequentially die after marrying her.  He sends her away, and then she becomes pregnant by disguising herself as a harlot and enticing Judah himself.  On discovering her pregnancy, Judah is about to condemn her for being a harlot, until she reveals to him that he is the father of her unborn children.


“She is more righteous than I,” he proclaims humbly (Gen 38:26).  Tamar cared not about her own pride, but about preserving the continuity of the family.  Judah realizes that his pride nearly cost him his only descendants.


Judah and Joseph are both strong personalities; both become leaders.  They had to learn, however, that jealousy and pride are dangerous traits.   Each had to be humbled, Judah by the incident with Tamar, and Joseph by being thrown into a pit and then thrown into a prison.  (In another interesting parallel between the stories, the midrash tells us that the episode with Potiphar’s wife also occurred because she believed her descendants would come from Joseph – as did Tamar with Judah.)


The unity envisioned by their father Yaakov was a fragile thing.  The dream of resettlement together in the Land of Israel would have come to naught unless these leaders corrected their excesses of pride.


We may take a lesson for today.  The unity of the extended family called the Jewish people tugs at our hearts; we are so excited when a person discovers they are Jewish, or when it seems a ‘lost tribe’ may have been found.  So too the vision of Israel our promised land; we long for its promise to be realized.   What stands in the way?  From the perspective of Vayeshev, pride and seeking glory are the obstacles.  How can we give up our jealousy, pride, competitiveness, and grudge-holding?  When will we see that positioning ourselves behind ideologies and fixed viewpoints  in self-righteousness is an outrage to the soul? – to each individual soul, the Jewish soul, and the soul of the Land.


May the settlement of the land be enriched by deeper settlement:  the settling of disputes, and the settled heart.

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