The Land of Sojourning

Vayeshev By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Nov 19, 2013 / 5774 | Israel

After the relative insecurity and turbulence of Jacob’s life (masquerading as his brother Esau, taking flight to Laban’s home, becoming the victim of deception vis-à-vis a wife and his wages, and the wrestling match of last week), Parashat Vayeshev opens with the hope of the patriarch transitioning into a calmer stage of life. One of Rashi’s more famous comments is connected to the opening verse of the parashah: “Jacob was settled in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan” (Gen. 37:1): Jacob sought to live peacefully but the misery of the Joseph episode pounced on him.” But more than that, inherent in the opening verse is a contradiction of sorts. While va-yeishev (was settled) implies a sense of permanence and settlement, eretz m’gurei aviv (the land of his father’s sojourning) suggests fragility and temporality. Why does Torah refer to the land of Canaan, the territory promised to the descendants of Abraham as a gift and inheritance, as a land of “sojournings”? How could the patriarch be settled in a land that was one of merely “sojournings” and not stability?

Professor Zeev Falk offers dramatic insight into our verse. Falk first demonstrates his surprise by querying, “Why is the land referred to as one of ‘sojournings’ rather than ‘the land that I give to you’ (Genesis 28:13) or ‘the land of your ancestors and your birthplace’ (Genesis 31:3) or ‘the land of your birth’ (Genesis 31:13)?” Interestingly, he hypothesizes that “perhaps Jacob felt alienated and alone in the land after the rape of his daughter Dina, or he felt closer to his family in Haran or he didn’t want to rely on the blessing of the land and so described his connection to the land as being one of ancestral sojourning” (Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, 81).

What is the wisdom behind Professor Falk’s comment? One’s connection to and feeling about a land may be a function of the native inhabitants, familial connections, as well as one’s personal history. Far from the Land of Israel being given to our ancestors on a silver platter, each of our patriarchs wrestled with his unique relationship to it. Our patriarchal experience with respect to the land dovetails well with a later talmudic teaching: “the land of Israel is acquired through suffering” (BT Berakhot 5a). Faced with the disturbing behavior of the natives of the land, the great distance from his familial connections, and the experience of his “fathers,” it is no wonder that Jacob is settled in the land of “sojourning,” for he too is a stranger in the land. External and internal forces propel Jacob into this complicated relationship, and ultimately become the harbinger of a prolonged and oppressive sojourn in the land of Egypt. 

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