This Week in Torah
Shabbat VaYeshev 5774 – November 22-23, 2013
Eternal People, Temporal Nation
“Jacob settled in the land of his father’s sojourning, the land of Canaan.”
Our parashah opens with this deceptively simple verse before the text gives way to a litany of unsettling vignettes, each one an agonizing tale of justice delayed or denied by the callous exercise of power. Here are but the most obvious (you can find more):
- Joseph takes advantage of his position as his father’s favorite and lords it over his brothers.
- Greater in number and strength, the brothers throw Joseph into the pit and sell him into slavery.
- Judah subverts Tamar’s right to be impregnated by his surviving son.
- Ms. Potiphar, in an early case of female on male sexual harassment, gets Joseph locked up.
- Pharaoh throws both a guilty courtier and an innocent one into the dungeon.
We know where it winds up – with the People of Israel enslaved and exiled from their land. The first verse of our reading alludes to this status.
“VaYeshev” – “and he settled” is to be contrasted with the land of “miguraei aveev” – his father’s sojourning”. This teaches that Jacob saw himself as a permanent legal resident of Israel (Yeshuv = permanent settlement) in contrast with Isaac who – even though he is the patriarch who does not go down to Egypt –sees himself only as “ger” a stranger, sojourner or someone whose residence is otherwise deemed temporal by him/herself and others.
Another question: Why does the text revert to calling the place Canaan? Even if it is too soon in the story for the use of the “Land of Israel” it could have been referenced as the land promised to Abraham and Sarah or simply “Ha’Aretz” – The Land.
The Torah says “Canaan” in introduction to the injustice stories – injustices perpetrated both to us and by us – as a reminder that we are neither the first nor the only people who did or will live in Canaan/Israel. The contrast between ‘yishuv’ permanent inhabitant and ‘ger’, someone who will move on, shows that even the same family, in the same place, can – depending on their behavior – merit a settled life or exile depending on the quality of justice meted out to all who dwell there.
This parashah, which tells of injustice after injustice, opens with a warning, which says that unless justice is upheld, although it is now Israel, the land can return to being Canaan and we can revert to being only gerim – strangers in it.
The People of Israel are eternal but their tenure in the land is temporal and, as our haftarah points out, subject to good behavior.
Rabbi Steve Denker
This week Rabbi Denker’s message was distributed worldwide on behalf of the Israel Religious Action Center.