Droshe on Wajeishev

The parsha we read today starts with the pasuk ”Wajeishev Jankev ba’arets Mgurei Oviw b’erets Kno’an” – ”And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.” The contemporary bible commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg tarries at the word Wajeishev. She connects the verb being used, jashav, with settling down in peace. Every year we use this word when God commands us to ”leshev basuke”, to dwell in the suka, hoping for the same peace. We trust God and our friends to keep us safe and sound – even against bad weather. From the same word we derive jeshive, the study house the Talmud claims is a place to build peace. And Jashav is related to shavas, the root for our restful shabes. Regarding this idea, Gottlieb Zornberg quotes an older commentary: ”God says, ’Is it not enough for the righteous, what is prepared for them in the world to come, that they seek to settle in peace in this world’”

Still, peace isn’t exactly what characterizes Jacobs life. His story from the womb to today’s parsha is a series of conflicts, with his brother Esau and father-in-law Lavan in particular His life from this parsha and on will be a series of conflicts mostly revolving around his favorite son, Joseph. Maybe this is a way to understand the use of Jashav: it’s a dramatic kvetsh. The Torah teases him. Talmud Sanhedrin (106a:15) agrees. Rabbi Jochanan claims there ”Everywhere that it is stated: And he dwelt (Wajeishev), it is nothing other than an expression of pain [of an impending calamity]”, and this psuk is used as an example. Gottlieb Zornberg herself quotes a medresh saying: ”When the righteous settle in peace – and seek to settle in peace – in this world, Satan comes to accuse them”.

So what is Jacob doing wrong? Why can’t he make peace? What he does wrong with Joseph is obvious in the text. If you miss it, Reish Lakish in the name of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariahs explains in Breishes Raba ”A man must not make a distinction between among his children, for on account of the coat of many colors which our ancestor Jacob made for Joseph, they hated him.” How could Jacob know better though? He was raised the same way. His two parents had fought over who should be their favorite and the one to inherit. Jacob tries to usurpe the inheritance over food when Esau’s starving, and then tricks the inheritance from the blind Isaac, per his mothers instructions. Was it right that Esau got it? Maybe, he seemed to be the right person for the job. But did he build peace?

When he moves to Lavan and tries to break tradition by marrying the younger daughter, Rochl, first, and Lavan tricks him into marrying the older Lea, he gets a taste of his own medicine. Lavan forces Jacob into a shitty job, and Jacob, as the first union hero, plots to leave Lavan with his fair share of the profits (and Lavans idols). Was it right? I’d say so, but it didn’t build peace.

Some justice movements have had the slogan of ”no justice, no peace”. The underlying idea is that ”peace” only works between equals. In a hierarchical relationship, you can at best build a good truce. The weaker party will always want to revolt to gain a more fair share, and the stronger part will want to use violence to reproduce the inequality or oppression. I want to try the idea that this is where Satans challenge comes from. We have here a way to understand Jacobs situation. When his superiors uses rules or traditions he doesn’t like, he breaks them. He acts from what he sees as right instead. He violates the right of inheritance for the firstborn, the rule of marrying the older daughter first, the right of Lavan to decide over his economy and household, and he’s not interested in upholding the right of inheritance among his own children. And speaking of his children, the most famous of his descendants, Moishe Rabeinu, was really not interested in building peace. He was interested in fighting for the freedom of his people.

Maybe Satan has a point when he accuses the righteous who seeks peace in this world. Maybe it is naive to try to build peace in an unjust world. Maybe it’s even impossible. I believe so. But does this mean we have to stop trying to build peace and only fight injustice? I don’t think so. I think we just need to accept that no peace we build in this world will be forever. We can still build moments of peace to find strength in, and at the same time build the righteous world that one day, with the help of God, will come. Like Jacob did. He came to the land of Caanan and got a moment of peace before Joseph was taken away. And the rest of us have other moments. For many, it can be our shabats: a moment of peace and a taste of the world to come.

So maybe there is a third way understand the first psuk in our parsha. Maybe wajeishev is to be understood not as Jacob naively building a life settled in peace, but him settling in a moment of peace. And until Joseph is taken away, he does succeed. He gets to live a free man with a big family in the land of his forefathers. So I’ll go off with a final Talmud quote, this time from Pirkei Oves (4:1), ”Eizehu Ashir, Hasameach bechelku – Who is happy, the one who is content with his portion”.  

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