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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Vayeishev: To be a Stranger

The last few weeks have been spent in the company of Jacob. Last week I argued that Jacob had reached the height of his powers and his ethical growth in his final confrontation with Esau. What I didn't discuss is how quickly he seems to fade into the background. In last week's reading, after his meeting with Esau, Jacob's daughter, Dina, is raped and taken captive. Jacob's sons take the lead in securing her return. Jacob is strangely silent, until the subterfuge and violent vigilantism of his sons meets with his disapproval (Genesis 34:30).

In this week's reading, Jacob remains in the background. Primarily, this week is the story of Joseph, his dreams, his conflict with his brothers, the story of Judah and Tamar, and the story of Joseph's new life in Egypt, ending with his incarceration, having been snared by the wife of Potiphar. Throughout these stories, Jacob has all but retired. And yet the Midrash argues that Jacob had no right to resign himself to the background. Indeed, the Midrash focuses on the fact that Jacob isn't all that present, or all that active, in this week's reading, and teases out from that absence a central lesson of the book of Genesis. Before we get to that Midrash, we need to take a little detour.

Biblical Hebrew contains two words for the verb "to dwell" or "to live in a place". The first is לשבת and the second is לגור. The first shares its root with the Hebrew word for sitting. To dwell in a place is to reside there. It is to rest one's weight in a given location. It is to rest one's weary legs. The second word shares its root with the Hebrew word for a stranger. This is counter-intuitive. To be a stranger seems to be at odds with being at home in a place.

English translations tend to use "to dwell" in place of לשבת, and "to sojourn" in place of לגור. Perhaps the idea is that "sojourning" carries with it a nuance of transience. To dwell in a place, by contrast, is to make it one's home. To sojourn somewhere is simply to stay there for a while, before journeying on.

Last week, we mentioned Rashi's understanding that Jacob had maintained his Jewish identity, and his moral character, even whilst living in the house of Laban. Rashi saw this in Jacob's message to Esau: "I lived in the house of Laban." The numerical value of the word "גרתי", "I lived", amounts to 613 - the number of commandments in the Torah. But that word actually means, I sojourned. The appeal to numerology is cute: it implies that Jacob managed to live in accordance with God's commandments even in the house of Laban. But the numerology is underwritten by the very meaning of the word. Jacob is saying that he lived in Laban's house but that he remained a stranger. To sojourn in a place is never to feel quite at home there.

But, if we sojourn in exile, aren't we supposed to dwell in the land of Israel? Not so fast!

Abraham and Isaac's relationship with the land of Israel is often described in terms of sojourning; rather than in terms of dwelling. For example, in last week's reading, when Jacob was reunited with his father, we're told (Genesis 35:27):

Jacob came to Isaac his father in Mamre, Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, where Isaac and Abraham sojourned.

If this is the promised land, if this is the homeland, then surely you'd expect them to dwell in it, rather than to sojourn. But they didn't.

Indeed, in Hebron, Abraham described himself to his neighbours in terms of both of our verbs. He said that "I am a resident-alien in your midst" (Genesis 23:4). I am a dweller-sojourner. I am a גר ותושב.

Rabbi Soloveitchik, the great twentieth-century leader of Modern Orthodox Judaism wrote:

Rabbi Soloveitchik
Abraham's definition of his dual status [as a resident-alien], we believe, describes with profound accuracy the historical position of the Jew who resides in a predominantly non-Jewish society. He was a resident, like other inhabitants of Canaan, sharing with them a concern for the welfare of society, digging wells and contributing to the progress of the country in loyalty to its government and institutions. Here, Abraham was clearly a fellow citizen, a patriot among compatriots, joining others in advancing the common welfare. However, there was another aspect, the spiritual, in which Abraham regarded himself as a stranger. His identification and solidarity with his fellow citizens in the secular realm did not imply his readiness to relinquish any aspects of his religious uniqueness. His was a different faith and he was governed by perceptions, truths, and observances which set him apart from the larger faith community. In this regard, Abraham and his descendants would always remain 'strangers.'

This has always struck me as a profound understanding of Abraham's words, and a brilliant articulation of the Modern Orthodox mindset. We are Jews who are faithful to the Torah whilst also striving to be citizens of the wider-world. We are always resident-aliens. But you might think that this is the mindset of the exile. A Jew in a foreign land has to be a resident-alien. And even though Abraham was saying these words in the land of Israel, he was speaking before the advent of Jewish sovereignty. He wasn't in a Jewish State of Israel.

Accordingly, what's really remarkable is that God himself utters Abraham's words to the Jews just before they create their first sovereign state in the land of Israel. At that point in time, God instructs the Jews that they have no right to sell a freehold over any patch of land in Israel. Instead they can sell a lease for up to fifty years, and no longer. Why? God explains (Leviticus 25:23):

But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are resident-aliens with Me.

In other words: don't think that taking possession of a land, and creating a sovereign state is going to change anything here. You were strangers beforehand, and strangers you will remain.

Franz Rosenzweig recognizes a subversive message in the text of the Bible. Despite the centrality of the land of Israel, Rosenzweig recognizes that the Torah is actually opposed to the notion of a homeland. This message starts with Abraham. Abraham is an immigrant.

Franz Rosenzweig
His story begins, as the Holy Books recount it, with the divine command to go out of the land of his birth and to go into a land that God will show him. And the people becomes the people... [in] exile, the Egyptian one as later the one in Babylon... [Moreover,] for the eternal people the homeland never becomes its own... The land is in the deepest sense its own only as a land of longing, as—holy land. And this is why for it, even when it is at home, again differently from all peoples of the earth, this full proprietorship of the homeland is disputed; it is itself only a stranger and tenant in its land. “The land is mine,” says God to the people...

Judaism starts with the commandment, to Abraham, to leave his homeland. We became a people in Egypt, and more formally at the revelation in the Sinai desert. That is to say: we became a people in exile. The Babylonian Talmud, which is the backbone of our lived religion, was redacted in exile. And, wherever the Jew finds herself, she must always feel estranged. Outside of Israel she can never feel at home. Indeed, she is in exile. But even in Israel, she cannot feel at home because she does not have a homeland. Rather, she has a holy land. A holy land can belong to no person or community, because a holy land belongs to God. The most that we can hope to be is a resident-alien in God's land.

Rosenzweig's anti-Zionism bubbles under the surface of this quote. But the point shouldn't (and needn't) be ignored by a Zionist. The point is that, even if we have a right to a sovereign state - even if we're right to assert that right and to defend it - we should never allow our tenure in the holy-land to make us feel as if the land is ours. We should never allow the chauvinism of nationalism to pollute the piety and the humility that comes with living as a resident-alien. Moreover, a resident-alien is able to look other people in the eye and to recognise that - so long as they're willing to live alongside us - there is room in the land for them too; since the land belongs to none of us. It belongs to God.

The Torah goes out of its way to replace the notion of a homeland - a notion that's soiled in chauvinism, arrogance, and xenophobia - with the notion of a holy land.

Now we're ready to engage with our Midrash.

The first verse of our Parsha reads as follows (Genesis 37:1):

Jacob dwelt in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan.

The verse uses both of our verbs for living in a place. Pointedly, it suggests that Jacob sought to have a relationship with the land that his father didn't have. Jacob sought to dwell where his father merely sojourned.

Enter the Midrash:

Rav Acha said: As soon as the righteous dwell in tranquility, and seek to dwell in tranquility in this world, Satan comes and prosecutes, and says, "Is that which has been prepared for them in the world to come not enough, that they should seek to dwell in tranquility in this world too?!" Know that this is so. As soon as Jacob our father sought to dwell in tranquility in this world, Satan came upon him [in order to instigate the trouble] with Joseph. "And Jacob dwelt".

This Midrash concludes by putting the words of Job (3:26) - "I had no tranquility, no quiet, no rest, and trouble came" - into the mouth of Jacob.

"I had no tranquility" from Esau. "I had no quiet" from Laban. "I had no rest" because of [what happened to Dina]. "And trouble came" - the trouble [surrounding] Joseph came upon me.

Jacob sought to settle down in the land of his father's sojourning. Jacob sought to feel at home in the land of his father's estrangement. And, as if to rebuke him for his audacity, trouble doubles down upon him as he fades into the background of this week's reading.

I suppose that we could read this Midrash in the light of Rosenzweig. Perhaps Jacob sought to feel at home in the holy land. He started to feel a sense of entitlement. But that doesn't gel with Jacob's character. By nature - as we've explored over the last few weeks - Jacob is unassuming, timid, pure-hearted, and introverted. What's more likely happening here is that Jacob simply wants to retire.

Jacob was always reluctant to engage with the world around him; always reluctant - as we saw - to dirty his hands. And since he had proven himself in the house of Laban, for all of those years; and since he'd proven himself in his confrontation with Esau; he thought he had earned the right, so to speak, to retire from the world; to return to the tent-dwelling studious lifestyle of his youth; to return to the life he lived before his mother encouraged him to deceive his father; to return to the peace and the quiet that surrounded him in the purity of his youth. Perhaps that's why Jacob recedes into the background as the stories of Joseph and Judah unfold. Perhaps he also retires into his own grief: his beloved Rachel has died and their eldest son has disappeared. But our Midrash is unhappy with Jacob.

Just as we should never feel that we own the land upon which we walk; we should also never feel at home in a world that is broken and in need of repair. There's plenty of peace and quiet stored up for the righteous in the perfect existence of the world to come. But in the meantime, we live in a broken world and we are summoned to play our part in fixing it. The problem with feeling at home is that we start to feel inured to the evil, the pain, and the suffering in our midst. To feel at home in a broken world is to be reconciled to its brokenness; or to ignore it. And that's why we are summoned to view ourselves always as strangers.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with having beautiful homes. And there's nothing wrong with physical comfort. And there's nothing wrong with asserting our right to live in security in the land of our ancestors. We're not wrong to want these things. But the challenge we learn from Abraham's notion of a resident-alien - a notion that God endorses - is that we should never allow the beauty of our homes to leave us feeling at home in a broken world; we should never allow our physical comfort to leave us feeling comfortable with, or reconciled to the pain of others; and we should never allow the notion of a holy-land to be sullied by a chauvinistic patriotism for a homeland.

It's worth noting that of our two Biblical verbs for living in a place - לשבת to dwell and לגור to sojourn - modern Hebrew only has one verb: לגור to sojourn. I am proud to say, after hundreds of generations of exiles who prayed to return, that I live in the land of Israel. But to say this in Hebrew - אני גר בארץ ישראל - is, quite literally, to say that I am a stranger in the land of Israel. And that is how it should be since we are called upon, always, to be strangers.

Consider also the fact that a convert to Judaism, even after conversion, is called a גר, a stranger. But what makes them a stranger isn't that they were born non-Jewish. What makes them a stranger is that they went through a process of conversion. That process is called, in Hebrew, גיור, which means, to become a stranger. What better proof could there be that to be a Jew is to be called upon, always, to be a stranger?

A religious personality might yearn for the silence of the monastery, or the mountain top, or the Yeshiva [rabbinical school]. But we are called upon never to settle for the quiet life until this broken world is healed.

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