Preface Before Kriat Ha-Torah (the Torah Reading): We know this parashat Vayeshev well. If not from the Torah, than from the stage. Think Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. In our parashah... ● Jacob shows favor to his son, Joseph. ● Joseph’s brothers resent him. ● Joseph has big dreams, which antagonize his brothers even more. ● His brothers throw Joseph in a pit; he is collected by slave traders. ● The brothers show their father Jacob Joseph’s tattered coat of many colors. ● Jacob thinks Joseph is dead; he’s distraught
After Kriat Ha-Torah: In the very first verse of the parashah, it reads: “Jacob now settled in the land of his father's sojourning, in the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 37:1) In Hebrew: “Vayeshev Ya’akov…” What does it mean for Jacob to settle in the land of his father’s sojourning? What does it mean to dwell? Or to sit? Well, before I answer, let’s review first what we know about the opposite of settling, sojourning. We know that when our ancestors are sojourning, their physical movement helps them discover something about their spiritual potential or capacity. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all make spiritual progress by going forward. ● They learn about God. ● They learn about covenant. ● They learn about the responsibilities of covenant. ● They set us, their descendants, up for a life of mitzvot. Hay. Lamed. Khaf. This is the same root or the word halakhah, which is generally translated as “Jewish law.” However, more literally halakhah means “the way,” which implies a path upon which we direct our lives--a moral path upon which we become the force for good God intends, that God commands.
Now, back to settling down. Vayeshev Ya’akov. Vayeshev is based on the same root (Yud. Shin. Vet.)as la’sheiv, to sit. We use the word la’sheiv in our blessing over sitting down or dwelling inside a sukkah. A sukkah is historically relevant this time of year as we celebrate Hanukkah, because some think that the Maccabees celebrated a belated Sukkot after defeating the Greco-Syrian army late in the month of Kislev, a practice that morphed into the festival of Hanukkah. But it also stands to reason that, when our nomadic ancestors were on the move, they built sukkot, temporary dwellings in which to live while they were harvesting their fall crops. And just as their movement led to spiritual growth, so did sitting down once in a while. As it is said in the V’ahavta: V’dibbarta bam b’shiv’t’kha b’beitekha uv’lekha’t’kha va’derekh: You shall speak of the mitzvot when you sit in your home and when you walk by the way.” (Deut. 6:7)
What kinds of mitzvot can we do when dwelling in a sukkah or our homes for that matter? We can study Torah and pray to God. We can and bless our food. We can remember our ancestors and invite guests. And we can pursue one of the many mitzvot that strengthen family and community: honoring of parents, respect for elders. love of neighbor. We can pursue of peace. And in the spirit of our parashah, we should be able to dwell in our sukkot or our more permanent homes in peace. We should be able to live in a world that is peaceful. We should be able to live in wholeness. These aspirations are reflected in the words vayeshev Ya’akov. And Jacob dwelled. And Jacob settled down. But how so?
According to chassidic commentary, the Yalkut Divrei Ha-chachamim, Jacob sought to dwell in tranquility, but the anguish of Joseph fell upon him. It is said further by Rashi: “The righteous wish to dwell in tranquility. The Holy One, blessed be God said: It is not enough for the righteous that the World to Come is prepared for them but they wish to live in tranquility in this world as well.
So while Jacob wishes to settle down, it’s hard for him to do so because mourning his son is so painful. And, yet, he and his sons, including Joseph, have a chance to make the moment of dwelling matter by how they grow from the challenges they’ve had to confront in life. The tranquility they might possess is not a function of sitting around and doing nothing but dreaming and preparing to improve the world around them. Consider the words from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat:
Some folks dream of the wonders they'll do Before their time on this planet is through Some just don't have anything planned They hide their hopes and their heads in the sand
So, just as physical movement has important and transformative spiritual and moral potential so does dwelling. But settling in is not just sitting around. Dwelling is settling in with intentionality, the mindfulness that we can make a difference, that we can be a force for good.
Now one thing was true for Jacob whether he settled into his permanent home in Ca’na’an or dwelled in a sukkah along the way, he had some kind of shelter in which he might discover tranquility--even if elusive. Not all enjoy such blessings. Some cannot find much tranquility because they have no place to live in the first place or they cannot afford any kind of housing. Thus, one way we can secure peace in our community, in our city, and in our world is to ensure that all have a place to live, a place to nurture dreams, a place to plan acts of tikkun olam, a place to be safe and secure, a place to settle in, a place to dwell, a place to call home This effort is an essential act of justice. And as we approach Hanukkah, our season of light and freedom, may we rededicate ourselves to such acts of justice and tranquility.
In the spirit of this prayer, I am pleased to invite up up Debra Miller, our fellow congregant and member of the Chicago Housing Initiative to tell us more about the upcoming Mayoral Forum on Economic Justice and Fair Equitable Housing.
The Forum will take place at UIC on Tuesday, December 11 at 6pm. Doors open at 530pm.