Dwelling in Tents Parasha Vayeshev 5783

Our parasha for this week continues the story of Jacob. Of all of our Biblical ancestors, with the exception of David, Jacob leads the most tumultuous life. He struggles with his brother in the womb, deceives his father, steals the blessing reserved for the first born and must flee his home to escape the anger of his brother who has threatened to kill him. He is in turn deceived by his father-in-law, Laban, into working three times longer for his wife Rachel as he had agreed. He marries two sisters who are rivals with one another for his affection, takes their maid servants as wives as well, and sires 12 sons and a daughter. His daughter is kidnapped and raped and his sons’ violent response to that event make him fear for his own life and the lives of his loved ones.

Our Torah reading opens with the words, “Jacob settled in the land”. From the use of the word, “settled” the rabbis deduce that Jacob finally believed that, after all his troubles, he had finally found peace and tranquility in his life. The midrash has G-d criticizing Jacob for asking for too much.  “Isn’t it enough to know that the righteous will have tranquility in the World to Come? You expect peace and tranquility in this world as well?”   In fact, no sooner does Jacob “settle down” than his favorite son Joseph is sold into slavery and his much sought-after tranquility is shattered.

In telling this story, the Rabbis are delivering a rather demoralizing message. Hasn’t Jacob merited some sense of respite and peace after his tumultuous life? Is not, as Psalm 97 just declared, “Light sown for the righteous, happiness for the upright”?  The answer is no, they say, to be righteous is to be in turmoil, at least in this world!  There should be no expectation of tranquility in this world for the pious. For good, principled, upstanding and decent people, there can be no rest, no happiness. That is asking too much. One’s reward will come after death. 

Surely you are wondering: Are the rabbis saying that good people must live their lives in pain? 

Fortunately, we have other sources which praise Jacob for seeking to live his life in peace. Rabbi Erin Leib Smokler, who is the Director of Spiritual Development at Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy, notes that Jacob is first introduced to us as “an innocent/pure/complete man (an “ish tam”) dwelling in tents”. This contrasts to his brother Esau, who is a “man of the fields”. The rabbis wonder why Jacob is described as “dwelling in tents” [plural] rather than “a man who dwells in a tent”. [singular]. Rabbi Smokler then cites R. Yosef Gikatilla, a 13th century Spanish Kabbalist who explains that Jacob “dwelling in tents” means that Jacob represents a “middle way” between two competing extremes. Jacob straddles the tent of Abraham, his grandfather, who represents strict justice – Din. On the other side of Jacob is the tent of his father Isaac, who represents mercy and kindness, or Chesed. Jacob is able to balance “justice” with “mercy”. He is able to hold contradictions, to embrace the tension of two conflicting legacies, within himself. He is able to tolerate paradox and unite opposites and still maintain his integrity, his sense of oneness and wholeness. 

The opening of our parasha finds Jacob unknowingly on the precipice of a cataclysmic event in his life which is the disappearance of his favorite son Joseph. In his poem, “The Second Coming”, written in the wake of the massive destruction of World War l, William Butler Yeats gives us a vision of a world on the verge of disintegration:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

We too often experience our world as a world where “the center cannot hold”. Climate change, mass migration, the threat of nuclear war, gun violence, food insecurity, and the like, all threaten to pull our world apart at the seams, “to loose anarchy upon the world”.  In such circumstances, can anyone hope to transcend the pain of existence?  To achieve nirvana? That kind of “peace” is not granted by G-d in our tradition.  However, Rabbi Smolker concludes, the alternative is not that we live our lives in constant pain or in constant apprehension of impending disaster. Rather, when it feels to us that “things are falling apart” we must remain “centered” so that we maintain our convictions about the sacredness and value of life. The “peace” of the righteous is an active, effortful form of sitting, of “dwelling” –more conscious, more alive to accepting that we live in a world of contradictions and ambiguities, that we too dwell between ohalim (tents). Like Jacob, instead of being pulled apart by the tensions between these poles and losing our sense of purpose, or, alternatively, of seeking refuge in the certitudes of fanaticism, seeking “peace” means finding an equilibrium that will serve as a force that binds these tensions, and our world, together. 

Shabbat Shalom