The Refuge of Judaism

Vayeshev | Hanukkah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 8, 2001 / 5762 | Torah Commentary

In his richly thoughtful one-volume History of the Jews in Modern Times, Professor Lloyd P. Gartner observes that “few Jews in the world of 1950 lived in the city or country where their grandparents had lived in 1880” (p. 213). Like the rest of the world, Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were on the move, to burgeoning cities in the countries where they lived or to lands abroad that beckoned with opportunity. By 1915, the Jewish population in the United States had mushroomed from 280,000 to 3,197,000. Jews represented some 11 percent of twenty-two million European immigrants who came to these shores between 1880-1914. The migration of vast numbers of people both within and beyond the borders of their homeland during the last two centuries is surely an upheaval of momentous consequences.

My own life story mirrors that floodtide. Born in Nazi Germany, I arrived on March 28, 1940 in New York in the bosom of a small family still intact. Six years later, almost to the month, we became American citizens. My parents embraced this country. They spoke only English at home and spent little time reminiscing about what they had left behind. I have often marveled at the steely resolve and psychic energy it took to negotiate that existential rupture.

Each year the opening line of this week’s parashah brings such thoughts to mind: “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan” (37:1). After a stormy absence of twenty years abroad, Jacob returned to the home of his youth. To sense the depth of his relief, we need but recall the fright with which he had fled. Exile had tested and transformed him. Jacob made it back to Canaan in time to bury his father and now seemed ready to finish his days tranquilly in Hebron, the place where both Isaac and Abraham had lived before him (35:27-29). The comfort and security of familiar surroundings would ensure the continuity of his faith.

In my travels across America, I always take note of families who have resided in the same community for several generations, a pattern far more common outside New York. We American Jews are forever relocating, though not to escape persecution like our forebears did. Yet frequent moving puts Jewish identity at risk. It takes time to build the social networks that moderate our self-centeredness. Families with deep roots often exhibit a well-developed sense of responsibility to maintain what history has rendered sacred. The price of our celebrated mobility is a house without heirlooms.

But the opening verse of our parashah is more than a summation of tribulations overcome. It points forward as well as backward. Jacob would not be granted the luxury of retiring from the fray to cultivate his inner life. As Isaac Abarbanel, the leader of Spanish Jewry in the hour of its expulsion, wrote in his commentary to the Torah, the noun “magor” (literally “sojourning”) is identical to another noun meaning “fear” or “terror.” The biblical word for “stranger” (ger) is also related to both. Subliminally, then, the verse contains an undertone of foreboding. If “vayeshev” (“and he settled”) alludes to the end of a period of turmoil in Jacob’s life, “megurei aviv” (“the sojournings of his father”) anticipates another fraught with pain. Having endured expulsion twice himself (first from Portugal, then from Spain), Abarbanel felt an affinity for Jacob who was fated to leave Canaan once again in old age.

In short, according to Abarbanel, Jacob returned to Hebron not only to dwell in his father’s community but also to be assaulted by the same terrors. He too was destined to witness bitter strife among his sons because he failed to love them equally. He too would suffer a long separation from his son that would end in a joyful reunion before death. And like Isaac, Jacob would be interred by sons who had reached a measure of reconciliation. To be at home, for Abarbanel, carried the risk of repeating our parents’ failings.

More deeply still, at-homeness does not eliminate the basic uncertainty of the human condition. Harsh reality buffeted Jacob in Canaan as it did in Paddan-aram. The Torah begins with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and the dominant setting for its narrative is outside the promised land. And once conquered, even the promised land did not yield the stability and security hoped for. The sober lesson that emerges from the history of ancient Israel is that wherever one may be, life is wracked by vicissitudes. The ballast in this sea of turbulence is the inner life.

It was Judaism that provided the refuge for my parents in the disorienting passage from one society to another. My father’s rabbinic calling transcended borders. Hebrew remained the key to eternal verities. The Jewish calendar continued to govern the rhythm of our home. I never heard my parents lament the money they were forbidden to take out of Germany, only the shipment of books from my father’s library that never made it to America.

Long before, the Rabbis had confidently affirmed that no matter where Israel might go in its exilic peregrinations, God would accompany them (BT Megillah 29a). Not the holiness of the land but the purity of the soul is what brings God near. With a book as their most sacred possession, Jews could live in their heads, immune to the troubles that beset them.

Shabbat Shalom ve-Hag Urim Sameah,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-yeishev are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.