The Challenge of Living Torah

Vayeshev By :  Arnold M. Eisen Chancellor Emeritus; Professor of Jewish Thought Posted On Dec 11, 2009 / 5770 | Torah Commentary

The medieval commentator Nachmanides famously wrote that “what happened to the ancestors is a sign for their descendants.” In other words, the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our people foreshadow and foretell the events of Jewish history long after. I’m not a believer in the literal truth of that assertion. I don’t think Jews are playing out a tale for which God wrote the plotline many centuries ago. Sometimes, however, the correspondence between archetypal biblical narrative and contemporary Jewish situation is remarkable. Consider today’s parashah as a case in point.

“And Jacob settled in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the Land of Canaan. This is the story of Jacob. Joseph…”

Let’s begin with the second verse: Joseph is called the story of his father. Joseph’s story belongs to Jacob. I know that there is a literal meaning of tol’dot that makes more immediate sense of the statement. The word means “generations” or “line,” cognate with the word for birth. Joseph is Jacob’s child. The Torah, according to this interpretation of the passage, is giving us genealogy, a male line.

But as the commentators were quick to notice, no other children are named here, though Jacob had many. Nor are his grandchildren mentioned. Something more than DNA alone is being transmitted from Jacob to Joseph. The same was true a few weeks ago, in the Torah portion called Tol’dot, where we read a similar statement about Isaac’s tol’dot: the stories of Jacob and Esau. I think the same lesson can be learned from the fact that the portion of the Torah called Hayyei Sarah (Sarah’s Life) concerns the death and burial of Sarah, and the portion entitled Va-y’hi (And He [Jacob] Lived) describes the death and burial not only of Jacob but of Joseph.

The lesson is this: our stories do not begin or end with us. We entered life in the middle of a plotline that began long before us. We are heirs to the characters who preceded us in far more than a biological sense. All of us carry on a story influenced and shaped decisively by individuals and events that we barely know or imagine. So too, the stories of our lives continue long after we are gone, borne by individuals and events that for the most part we will not know and taken in directions that we cannot begin to imagine. Some of us are blessed to know our children’s children or our students’ students. If especially fortunate, we may even get to meet members of the next generation after that. In rare cases we are also remembered several generations hence, invoked as influence or precedent, perhaps even cited as cause of effects still ongoing.

Most of the time, however, the legacy we leave behind is carried on less visibly and less directly. We set our children or our students on the path that we ourselves walk, imbue them with the Truth to which we are committed, and (with them beside us) carry forward the inheritance that we have received from our ancestors. We hope with some confidence that they will continue to walk this way, breaking the path to places we cannot go or envision. If we are wise, we are content with that. We do not need to see how things turn out. And we certainly do not want the chapters after us to be identical to the one in which we figured. No wise parent wants children who live exactly as he or she has lived: so much will have changed in the meantime. We want them to live their own lives, not try to relive ours.

The Torah certainly wants this. It does not want merely to be read, let alone to be read solely as history or literature. It wants to be lived by us. It depends on us make the story ours, as Jacob and then Joseph took on the relationship with YHWH that was central to their fathers’ lives, deepened that relationship through new dimensions of plot and character, and passed it on in turn to their descendants: a nation of partners in covenant who are called the children of Israel.

In that way Jacob and Joseph outlive their deaths. The Torah speaks—in a pun that cannot be unintended—of shnei hayyei Sarah—”the years of Sarah’s life,” also translatable as “the two lives of Sarah.” One life ended when she died, and the other is extended by everyone, you and me included, who carries on the tradition that she helped to begin. That is why the convert who adopts the covenant becomes a “child of Abraham and Sarah”: heir to their story, blessed with the responsibility and gift of taking it forward. The story becomes theirs. It belongs to all the community of Israel who continue the path first walked by the ancestors chronicled in Genesis.

That has been true of every generation of Jews. What then is the special relevance of this parashah to us? How is our situation different from that of the many generations of ancestor/descendants and teacher/students who preceded us?

In this way: we are “settled in the lands of [our parents’] sojournings.” Jews in contemporary North America are really, truly, remarkably at home. As a result we face unprecedented challenges in carrying Jewish tradition forward. No one forces us to do so. Nor are we persecuted for being who we are. Doors long closed have swung wide open before us. A thousand and one lines of plot and character development are possible for each individual Jew. Each faces the question, as parents and grandparents did not, of which to choose—or whether to leave the Torah’s story altogether and opt for a new one.

I feel this change keenly. For one thing, my scholarship on American Judaism traced the changes in Jewish religious thought and practice from “first generation” immigrants to “second generation” children of immigrants who struggled for acceptance in American society in the face of discrimination, the Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, and the rise of the State of Israel. This carries on to “third generation” Jews who came to maturity in the years following all that momentous history, enjoying unprecedented acceptance in America and turning attention once again to the meaning of being Jews (while confronting the enormity of the Holocaust, helping Israel to survive and grow, and assisting the exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union) and practicing Judaism in new suburbs and in new ways.

Of course the “fourth generation” barely remembers events in this history that were absolutely formative for their parents and grandparents, including the terrors of that history. This generation wonders, in the postmodern age of “local narratives,” whether the story is anything more than an “invented tradition”—interesting, perhaps ennobling, but hardly binding. Abstain from eating a particular piece of meat because of a story about Jacob wresting with an angel (32:33)? Stand with the ancestors at Sinai, in covenant, despite the fact that the account of Sinai too might only be a story? Is this for real?

But this generational plotline is more to me than a master story of twentieth-century American Judaism. My grandfathers were both immigrants and suffered for their move from Old Country to New. They sweated out a bare living as tailors. The grandfather I knew as a child (the other died too young) never mastered the language of America and so had little to do with its society or his own grandchildren. My parents also worked hard all their lives, surrendered career ambitions to the Depression, and achieved a degree of at-homeness in America far greater than their parents had known but nothing compared to that of their son, “their only son, whom they loved.” Like many baby boomers, I have benefited enormously from the postwar expansion of the economy and of every other opportunity in America—and from the new possibilities opened to Judaism, the new paths opened by and for Torah.

Ours is a generation that need make no apology for our Judaism: not socially (anti-Semitism is at historically low levels), not politically (Jews are heavily overrepresented in Congress and the White House staff), and not intellectually (the Bible is once more respected by those who set cultural norms, the Talmud is admired by scholars in multiple disciplines, and even belief in God is once more taken seriously in circles that scorned faith not long ago). We are finally settled here in the land of our ancestors’ sojournings. We need not send our children or our students away to carry on the tradition that matters most to us (as Jacob seems to send off Joseph, at the start of our parashah, to the kind of learning he knows from experience can only be acquired the hard way, far away from home).

Our task is different, I think: to live this Torah, here and now. To figure out what it means, here and now, bringing all our full participation in the larger culture to bear. To make Torah an effective force for justice and compassion in our communities, our society, and our world. To build communities of Torah that don’t just preach those virtues but practice them. In a word: to settle into Judaism the way our parents and grandparents settled into America. To use the home we have as a base from which to take Torah to new places and in new directions.

Jews may never again have the set of resources currently at the disposal of this Diaspora, including the chance to lend meaning and purpose through Torah to millions of individuals in search of them.

“Your turn,” the Torah seems to say as we reach the story of the final family ancestor whose life is chronicled by the Torah. Join the story of the nation founded at Sinai. Write the page not yet imagined, the one only you can write. Take Torah where no child of Israel has ever had the chance to take it before: tomorrow.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.