Friday, December 4, 2015

Parashat Vayeshev - Human Rights Shabbat

            This week’s parasha is called Vayeshev, named for the first line: “And Jacob settled.” It tells of how Jacob tried to settle his clan after much time spent feeling transitory. Even the years in one place, in Laban’s camp, felt as a place of impermanence, and Jacob seeks to settle in peace in a land for his family to have for themselves. This immediately gives way to the Joseph story, and much of the parasha is focused on the strife between Joseph and his brothers, Joseph’s near-death and actual enslavement and ends with Joseph the Dreamer wasting away in prison. The medieval commentator Rashi expounds on this, “‘And Jacob was settled’: Jacob sought to settle in peace – there leapt upon him the agitation of Joseph. The righteous seek to settle in peace – 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?” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg further explains Rashi’s comment by saying, “One might even say that it is characteristic of righteous people to yearn for such a ‘settling,’ a clarification of the turbulences and anguish of life. But God rebuffs this yearning, in a tone of strange sarcasm: ‘Is it not enough?’ In God’s rhetoric, the righteous are made to seem… almost greedy, their desire for peace in this world wrongheaded, in view of the treasure awaiting them in another world.” Zornberg takes it in a theological direction, implying those who are self-assured of their place in the world to come shouldn’t bother trying for peace in this world because if they do, God will cause disaster to fall upon them. As soon as Jacob got too comfortable, God caused Joseph to be torn from him as a means of keeping Jacob on his toes, according to this reading.
            However, I connect with Rashi’s comment through a slightly different lens. The righteous may not settle in peace in this world because of all the peace that awaits them in the world to come, and this is because to be righteous, to earn a place in the world to come means to keep fighting for a better world for all here and now. Self-care, inner peace, and time to recharge are hugely important for the righteous, but lest they ever think their struggle is over while there is still injustice and people fighting for survival elsewhere, there will always come upon them a painful reminder that their duty is not ended. A righteous person may feel the anguish and turbulences of peace and yearn for a time when that may settle, but to be truly righteous is to know better than to seek that peace for yourself before the time is right.
            In ancient rabbinic literature, it is common to use oppositional terms to describe human behaviors and regulations of those behaviors. One such pair of contradictions is that of “Yishuv hada’at” – a settled mind – and “Tiruf hada’at” – a torn mind. Obviously, human experiences exist on a spectrum full of gray nuance, but the idea is that if we were to simplify our lives and thoughts down to a binary of extremes, we would find that we either have our minds at peace, able to think clearer and coherently, or our minds are scrambled, confused, maybe not even fully conscious. In this Torah portion we find these terms bookending the same chapter (Genesis 37). In the beginning of the parasha, starting with Genesis 37:1, we have the yishuv, the settling, of Jacob. After all his travels, this is clearly meant to be a physical, permanent settling, but the Midrash also has us understanding this as an emotional settling for Jacob. He has had some exhausting experiences up to now, and he’s ready to settle his brain. The end of the chapter, 37:33, about halfway through the portion, has Jacob lamenting that Joseph has been “tarof toraf,” surely and completely torn apart. Again, to Jacob, this is a physical tearing, of the coat and, in his mind, of Joseph, but it is also an emotional tearing. This news causes his mind to tear, tiruf hada’at. Eventually, this will lead to his physical unsettling, when Jacob and his clan will move to Egypt. When Jacob seeks the one, he inevitably finds the other; when he tries to “settle in peace,” he unleashes the “vengeful furies” of the Joseph story – “not because his is a moral offense,” Zornberg assures us, “but because it constitutes a wrong understanding of the human condition.” We are not meant to have complete peace in this world while some still have none at all. Those who allow themselves to stay unsettled, their minds troubled, in order to help others, are the truly righteous.
            This Shabbat, as we are joined with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and many other congregations in support of Human Rights Shabbat, let us seek to find comfort and peace in unsettled realities. Let us learn how to live with the anguish that comes from knowing better than to think peace has yet come to this earth, so that we might continue to work toward peace and human rights for all. May we earn the label of righteous and true peace in the world to come. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.


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