Longing for Our Homeland
Mrs. Matsunaga looked at me with a puzzled face. She was the local English teacher in a village in Northern Japan. Moments before, she had bustled into the house where I was staying. It had come up in conversation that I was Jewish and she was trying to figure out what that meant. Suddenly, her face cleared. “You are from Israel,” she exclaimed. I laughed and said: “Yes, but that was a long time ago.”
Thinking about that incident, I came to realize that she had spotlighted the question of origin, which, for most Japanese, is simple to answer. Japan is and always has been, their homeland.. For Jews, however, the question of where one is from is both ancient and complicated.
This week’s parashah begins with the statement that Jacob settled (va-yeishev) in the land where his fathers had sojourned. (Genesis 37:1) The story of Joseph and his travails then begins. Joseph’s brothers, out of envy and hatred toward him, throw him in a pit and then sell him into slavery. Several midrashim interpret what happened to Joseph as a consequence of what is described in the opening verse of this week’s parashah: Jacob wanted to be “settled” in the sense of dwelling in tranquility; but the righteous are not granted this benefit.
Jacob tried to achieve an unachievable settledness. The result was the ultimate in being unsettled–the loss of his favorite son (Genesis Rabbah 84:3). The problem with this negative interpretation of the word “settled” is that Jacob did not use that word describe himself; rather, the word “settled” is introduced by the narrative voice of the Torah itself. If this is so, then Jacob’s position in the land starts to look better than that of his ancestors. Abraham described himself as a “resident alien” (ger v’toshav) in the land of Canaan (Genesis 23:4.) Jacob, in contrast, is described as settling in the land where his fathers had merely lived temporarily. Furthermore, God has told Jacob that Canaan is his native land (Genesis 31:13.) In contrast, God had told Abraham to leave his native land and go to Canaan (Genesis 12:1.) All this points to Jacob having a greater connection to the land than either his father or his grandfather. He was, to use modern terminology, a second-generation sabra.
On the other hand, it can be said that Jacob was less settled in the land than his father or grandfather. Unlike them, he left it permanently. He spent the last years of his life in Egypt and died there. Looking beyond Jacob’s life span, however, leads to a broader view of what it means to be settled. Jacob had another name, Israel. As Israel, he was the father of the twelve tribes that eventually returned to that land and settled there . Israel came to be the name not just of a person but of a land and a people. Mrs. Matsunaga’s comment probably meant more to me than to her. Jews still ask themselves what being settled means and where home is. Are the Jews who live in the State of Israel truly settled in the old and new homeland? Are the Jews who live elsewhere truly settled in the lands of their birth?
Judaism and Jews have survived and developed over thousands of years outside their homeland; yet the ever-present longing for that homeland was necessary for their development and survival. The State of Israel is now over fifty years old- about half the life span of the last independent Jewish state which was ruled by the descendants of the Maccabees. The future definition of the State of Israel remains unclear, not just in terms of boundaries, but also in terms of national identity. The midrash about settledness makes a good point. To settle in a place is possible; to find tranquility there, much less so.
Shabbat shalom and Happy Hanukkah
Rabbi Lewis Warshauer
The publication and distribution of Rabbi Warshauer’s commentary on Parashat Va-Yeshev are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.