וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ מְגוּרֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו בְּאֶ֖רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן
“Jacob settled in the land where his parents had lived” – Gen 37.1
The narrative of Jewish history, that is to say the story we tell ourselves about who we are and where we come from, is rooted in the myth of a garden. Eden, as the mythical birthplace of humanity, is a place of peace and fulfillment, and, most of all, connectedness. Psychological and mystical insights alike speak of the mothering from which we separate as we learn to stand and walk on our own, but that we miss as a hole in our wholeness from that moment on. The mystics promise that we can experience it again, in precious moments when we lose our sense of separate self and are swallowed up into an endless Oneness; they say that at the very least, we’ll know that feeling of wholeness again at the moment of our death.
This week’s Torah reading, VaYeshev, begins with what seems to be for our ancestor Israel (aka Jacob) an end of wandering, now “settled” with his large family where his parents had lived. He has come home. Throughout the Torah, the land called Canaan then and now Israel is for the Jewish people our Eden.
Yet, as the commentary Haamek Davar notes, this is “the land of his parents.” It wasn’t his home…the blessing of home would not be his until after they experienced ‘exile in a land not theirs’” (Ha’amek Davar, Bereshit 37.1).”
That land, of course, is Egypt, where we will be enslaved for four hundred years. Haamek Davar is noting here that the prophecy Jacob’s grandparent Abraham had experienced has yet to be fulfilled.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר ׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה
HaShem said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years (Gen. 15.13)
Just because you’re in a place doesn’t mean it’s home. Conversely, as Haamek Davar goes on to suggest, the place you are in might be home, at least in your generation, if – and here’s the key for us – if it is a place of Torah.
“If it is a place where we can be rooted in Torah, then it is good to be there. The Talmud declares that in the days of vibrant Jewish learning in Babylon, that place was the best place in the world to be.” (Continuation of Haamek Davar Bereshit 37.1)
It is tragically difficult to see the State of Israel right now as the fulfillment of any Jewish wholeness, while successive governments maintain the occupation of land that should be a Palestinian state, and a known transphobe is appointed supervisor of the Ministry of Education by the incoming coalition.
A Jewish state is one in which Jewish values are upheld, or at least held up: do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Ex.23.9). Execute true judgment, and show mercy and compassion (Zekharyah 7.10). Justice, justice you must do if you would thrive on the land where you live (Deut. 16.20)
We who do not live in Israel are nonetheless tied to Israel by history and by fate. To turn away is a naive choice and one which distances us further from Torah. As Jews we must understand that “this too is Torah, and I need to learn it,” as Rabbi Akiba said.
It’s not easy to engage in a world full of antisemitism that gets mixed up in legitimate criticism of Israel. First we need to know how to articulate our own sense of paradise lost, and acknowledge the sad sense of separation. That is our current exile, and it will not end until the place where we are – wherever we may find ourselves – is a place of Torah.
I invite you to join me on January 13 (stay tuned for details) to begin to engage in an ongoing conversation, in a safe place, about Israel as the Jewish homeland, and how to balance our longing for its promise with our sorrow for its reality.