temple emanu-el
top border
Torah Commentary
Vayeishev (December 8, 2012)
 
 

Dr. Mark Weisstuch, Administrative Vice President

THE OPENING SENTENCE of this portion suggests a turning point, a milestone achieved. Jacob, the third Patriarch, has lived through a succession of bitter, trying and even tragic experiences — cheating the blessing from his brother, Esau; inciting an entrenched sibling rivalry; fleeing home; enduring the duplicity of his uncle Laban; wrestling with a mysterious stranger; witnessing the rape of his daughter, Dinah; coping with the massacre of her lover and his family committed by his own sons; the death of his beloved Rachel. Jacob has indeed dealt with a lot, but it’s all behind him now. He has learned the lessons of life, he has grown. Now, the text seems to imply, he can rest: He settles into the “land where his father had sojourned.” He is no longer a wanderer like his father; his journey has culminated. He can rest in comfort and enjoy the fruits of his life’s work.

“Now Jacob was settled in the land...”
Watch out! The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) informs us that when the Bible uses the word vayeishev (“dwelt” or “settled”) it portends trouble. In addition to citing this passage as an example, it also observes its use in Numbers 25:1 when the people “settled” in Shittim just before they transgressed with the women of Moab. (Other instances include Genesis 47:27-29 and 1 Kings 5:5 and 11:14.) There is a Macbeth-like undertone of equivocation in this statement, whose dark side begins to unfold in the subsequent passages. Verse 2 of the portion proposes to introduce a description of Jacob’s genealogy, a natural caption for a life fulfilled. But the text takes a detour, a derailment that will occupy the concluding 13 chapters of Genesis. It begins and ends the genealogy with Joseph, underscoring that “Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph best of all his sons.” We have to wait until Genesis 46:8-26, at the end of the Joseph-in-Egypt narrative, to learn about all the descendants of Jacob.

“Now Jacob was settled in the land...”
There is a Yiddish expression, “Der mentsch tracht, und der Gott lacht.” (“Man plans and God laughs.”) The fatalism resonant in this saying may apply here as well. Jacob may think he is settled, but soon God will confound his best laid plans.

“Now Jacob was settled in the land...”
Perhaps, though, we are actually the makers of our own destiny? Jacob settles in because he feels he is entitled to rest by virtue of having suffered through the travails that life has flung at him. He has achieved fulfillment by enduring and surviving. It seems odd that Jacob comes to the final phase of his life, where he expects placidity and comfort, without acknowledging God’s role in his life journey. Where is the prayer for thanksgiving, let alone perhaps a small sacrifice? Jacob seems to feel that this was his accomplishment.

“Now Jacob was settled in the land...”
So begins our portion wherein the dramatic action — and drama is abundant here — is driven by the act of deception: Joseph deceives his brothers; his brothers deceive him; the sons deceive the father; Tamar deceives Judah after Judah deceives Tamar; Potiphar’s Wife deceives her husband and Joseph. And we are probably quick to note the irony of Jacob, who is now on the receiving end of his sons’ deception but was himself formerly a deceiver of his own father.

“Now Jacob was settled in the land...”
The deeper irony is that Jacob ultimately deceives himself. He thinks he has come to the end of his story, that he can retire in the bosom of his family with the satisfaction of having surmounted adversity. He is oblivious, however, to the deep fissures among his children, tensions that will explode with devastating consequences for all. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. And he certainly is not aware that he himself, through his favoritism of Joseph, is the cause of his own unsettling.

“Now Jacob was settled in the land...”?


WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Join the conversation and post your thoughts.


Back to Torah Study
photo of temple
One East 65th St., New York, New York 10065. Phone  212-744-1400
One East 65th Street, New York, NY 10065    (212) 744-1400 horizontal rule Member Log In | Calendar | Site Map | Contact Us | Text Size [+] [-]