The portion “Vayeshev” ( Genesis 37) brings us to several famous and infamous stories. We meet the spoiled and catered to Joseph and his famous coat (37:3) and are drawn into the sibling challenges of Joseph and his brothers which will find Joseph eventually in Egypt and finding favor with Potiphar’s wife (39). In between we find a strange and haunting story of Judah and Tamar and revisit issues of deception and family dynamics. All of these stories have been the subject of countless articles and sermons.
But, for us now, let me return tot he first part of our portion, indeed, the first word which gives the portion its name. “And Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned” (37:1). “Vayeshev” is the word in Hebrew. It is sometime translated as dwelt, and also, as in many translations, “was settled”.
The tradition has tried to understand this in a variety of ways, for example, Jacob settling in a place where his father had lived can mean that he takes his place in honoring his father. He has arrived at place in life where he understands his father and sees himself as part of that promised line of Jewish futures.
But what does, or can it mean to be “settled”? And what can this mean for us at our age? Aviva Zornberg, in her “Genesis: The Beginning of Desire”, channels Rashi in seeing Jacob’s desire to be settled as a desire to, finally, arrive at a place in life where there is peace. “There is a poignant undertow to the word “vayeshev”, as Rashi reads it. Quite reasonably, in the way that all righteous do-the statement about the desire for peace in unqualified (without “if” or “when”)–Jacob would like to settle his life, to find some measure of tranquility after all his troubles” (p. 243). Yet, this ‘settling” was not to be for within a few short verses, his hoped for tranquility is broken by the events that led to Joseph’s encounter with his brothers and his being transported to Egypt, and thus the flow of Jewish history changed. So it can be with us, in a way. The unexpected is always possible. How many of us know people who planned for retirement of peace, only to have life interrupt those plans. It is that old Yiddish expression on “man plans and God laughs”.
Let me also offer another short thought on “vayeshev”. Perhaps one way to look at this is that we should never really “settle”. By that I mean that part of life can be that we keep looking ahead for some new adventure, cause, plan or event; something that “keeps our creative juices flowing” and maybe “gives us a reason to get up in the morning”. Settling, can also mean to retreat from life and that usually leads to despair and, at times, depression. Life calls us constantly to be open to change, challenge and growth. Just a few thoughts on this very interesting word.
Rabbi Richard F Address