Parshat Vayeshev: To Live in this Land in Peace
Even today, when the people of Israel want to live in Israel in peace, various events occur that shake up their tranquility. The roads are a battleground and soldiers are everywhere. However, we also witness unwavering efforts to continue living life as normal.
Rabbanit Naomi Berman is the rosh beit midrash of the Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum
As a mother to children in a youth movement, the Saturday night of Shabbat Irgun [the main Shabbat event for the Israeli youth movements], is a mission whose goal is simple: to stay in the theater for just long enough to see my daughter’s performance, and no longer. A few years ago I remember arriving exactly on time for my 11-year-old’s dance with ultraviolet light, and I planned to leave as soon as it was over.
But immediately after my daughter and her peers left the stage, a presentation was screened onstage of events that had taken place in their Bnei Akiva groups over the past month. The clip was packed with photos of smiling children smeared with gouache paint having the time of their lives. Like any other mother, I was particularly interested in the photographs my daughter appeared in, but this time, the entire presentation caught my attention. In the background, Benny Friedman’s song Yesh Tikvah was playing – “There is hope” – as smiling and laughing children appeared on screen from a variety of activities. On the one hand, the power-point was packed with pictures of fun and games; on the other, it resonated with fear and pain.
The song referenced the long and difficult month we had just endured here in the State of Israel, but also focused on the country’s unwavering efforts to continue living life as normal in the face of terror; to continue our routine and live safely in our land. The roads had become a battleground. We were seeing soldiers everywhere, and feelings of anxiety penetrated into every moment of pseudo-calm. But still, the children were smiling. They continued living their lives and doing everyday things, in spite of it all.
The desire to live and reside in Israel in peace has its roots in this week’s parsha: “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned…” (Genesis 37:1). Rashi quotes the Midrash:
Jacob wished to live at ease, but this trouble in connection with Joseph suddenly came upon him. When the righteous wish to live at ease, Hashem says to them: “Are not the righteous satisfied with what is stored up for them in the world to come that they wish to live at ease in this world too! (ibid. 37:2). Apparently, the Midrash is addressing the internal contradiction within this verse. Jacob was living in the land (וישב), but the land was one he was residing in (מגורים) – and this Hebrew word is tied to the word גרות – the state of being an alien. The land in which Hashem kept his promise to our forefather Abraham was one where, according to the text, “your progeny will be foreigners”.
Abraham himself had to grapple with the challenge of living in Israel. At the end of Parshat Noach, at Terah’s behest, the family begins its journey to the Land of Canaan:
“Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.” (Genesis 11:31).
Terah never reached his destination, but he went through all of the necessary stages: departing, arriving, and resettling. Later, of course, Abram himself would resume the journey. He took his family, and left: “…and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they arrived in the land of Canaan…” (Genesis 12:5). Unlike his father, Abram did reach his destination. Unlike his grandfather, Terah, Abram did not go through all the necessary stages. Though he departed and arrived, it seems as though he wasn’t immediately able to settle down in his new place of residence.
The Torah even presents a contrast to Jacob’s residence in the land of Israel. At the end of the previous parsha, after the tense encounter between Jacob and Esau, the Torah describes the moment they part:
“Esau took his wives, his sons and daughters, and all the members of his household, his cattle and all his livestock, and all the property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan, and went to another land because of his brother Jacob. For their possessions were too many for them to dwell together, and the land where they sojourned could not support them because of their livestock. So Esau settled in the hill country of Seir—Esau being Edom.” (Genesis 36:6-8)
The motive for this journey remains a mystery: “and he went to another land because of his brother Jacob.”
Here, too, Rashi mentions the tension between residing as an inhabitant, and residing as a foreigner. Esau left the land of “their residence” for Har Se’ir, a place he could settle in.
On account of Esau, his brother: on account of the bond of indebtedness involved in the decree, “thy seed shall be a stranger etc… and they shall afflict them etc.” that was imposed upon Isaac’s descendants. He said, “I shall go hence — I desire no part either in the gift of this land which has been made to him (to my father) nor in the payment of this bond” (Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 37:7)
Esau’s decision was logical and rational. Why stay in a country in which God had promised he wouldn’t live in peace? In any case, the Torah immediately diverts our attention from Esau back to Jacob. Jacob, who ended up staying and settling within that same land, had to deal with the same promise. “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned…” (Genesis 37:1).
On that Saturday night, I witnessed Jacob’s descendants continuing his tradition. They wished to lived here, peacefully. All kinds of trouble chanced upon them, yet the wish to live here peacefully – gouache paint, smiles and all – remains. And in the background, the lyrics of Benny Friedman’s song resonate: “There is hope, if we all sing together. There is faith that is stronger than all of the fear…”