Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had resided, the land of Canaan. This, then, is the line of Jacob: At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of his father's wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic. (Genesis 37:1-3)
Dedicated to the memory of Eli Solomon, Hy"d (Adonai yikom damo), who gave his life in the Yom Kippur War, October 1973.
Hanukkah, the festival during which Vayeishev is read this year, is the only Jewish holiday that is totally rabbinic. A discussion of the proper celebration of this holiday must include the opposing concepts proposed by Hillel and Shammai: The former argues that on each successive night, an additional candle should be kindled, whereas the latter argues the reverse. As a result of the historical and geographical circumstances under which our people have lived, various customs and rituals have become part of the celebration of Hanukkah. In Israel, where I grew up, the holiday has come to symbolize the return of our people to our national homeland and the rededication of Jerusalem as the heart of our physical and spiritual existence.
For American Jewish children, Judah Maccabee is the mythical hero whose outnumbered army miraculously defeated the Greeks. In Israel, he is the Tzahal soldier whose acts of heroism and self-sacrifice resulted in the historical redemption of our people and Land.
When the State of Israel was declared, the eyes of many Jews throughout the world were filled with tears as they witnessed the miracle of our survival and our emergence from the darkness of the Holocaust to the light of national independence. For many, this event symbolized reishit tz'michat g'ulateinu—the beginning of the era we Reform Jews call the messianic age.
Despite the attacks and wars that the State of Israel has suffered in the first fifty years of its existence, this belief in the messianic age has never been extinguished. In fact, it gained strength after the signing of peace treaties between Israel and Egypt, and, later, between Israel and Jordan. After the Oslo Accords, the hope for peace reached its climax because many assumed that we Jews had finally reached the moment we had yearned for throughout the two-millennia of our Diaspora—the universal acceptance of our right to exist as a free people in our free homeland.
However, the events of the intifada that began in September 2000 and continue to this day shattered this dream of peace. Now more determined than hopeful, Israelis have learned an invaluable lesson during the past two years.
The portion we read this week is Vayeishev, which begins with the words "Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had resided." He has just returned home from exile. The many years he had spent in the house of his cheating father-in-law, Laban, must have seemed to him fitting punishment for his having lied to his own father. The jealousy of his in-laws could not have taught him the lessons of brotherly love. Now back home, he believed his punishment was over and that he could live in tranquillity. Baal HaTurim, the Torah commentator and codifier (1270-1340), explains the words Vayeishev Yaakov (Genesis 37:1)—"Now Jacob was settled"—in light of Zephaniah 3:15: "Adonai has annulled the judgment against you. He has swept away your foes. Israel's Sovereign, Adonai, is within you; you need fear misfortune no more." But no sooner have we read about and understood Jacob's need for a measure of domestic tranquillity, than verse 2 of the portion, "At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers," immediately thrusts us into the story of the additional trials and tribulations that Jacob will face.
The Ran (Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven, 1320-1380), a great talmudic commentator and halachic authority, teaches that the word Hanukkah is actually a hybrid made up of the word chanu, which means "they rested," and the two letters kaf and hei, corresponding to the numbers twenty and five, respectively. Therefore, he explains, Hanukkah refers to the victory of the Israelites over the Greeks, which is celebrated on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev. The mystics regarded Hanukkah as a battle in the ongoing war between good and evil and interpreted the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days as a symbol of the eventual victory of light over darkness. These explanations perhaps help us understand why, when Jacob heard the reported news of Joseph's death, "he refused to be comforted" (Genesis 37:35). Rashi teaches that these words do not mean that Jacob was inconsolable. Rather, Jacob refused to accept consolation because he did not believe that Joseph was dead. Despite his grief, Jacob never lost hope that Joseph was still alive and the family would one day be reconciled. It is for this reason that Jacob ultimately did receive his just rewards: Joseph, his son, now the vizier of Egypt, and Pharaoh bestowed on Jacob the great honor of greeting him upon his arrival in Egypt. And after Jacob's death, Joseph interred his bones in the same burial cave in Hebron that Abraham had purchased to bury Sarah.
Likewise today, as we read Vayeishev and light the Hanukkah candles, we must not lose hope in the possibility of our eventual peace and deliverance. Israel is indeed reishit tz'michat g'ulateinu—the beginning of our redemption. Like the Hanukkahcandles, Israel's light—which at times seems to flicker—grows stronger daily. The incessant news of hatred and bloodshed must not discourage us or our brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel. As we light the Hanukkah menorahs, sing songs, eat latkes, and play with dreidels, we must always remember that throughout the ages, God has been the Source of our hope and light and that as long as we continue dedicating ourselves and our children to our mission, God will continue guiding us until we, too, are able to live in tranquillity and peace in the Land of our ancestors.
The sidrah begins with a painful contrast between Jacob's desire to dwell in peace and tranquillity and the brutal reality of the animosity that exists between Joseph and his brothers. How do you think Jacob felt about this situation? How would you feel in if you were in his place?
Jacob favors Joseph, the firstborn of his beloved wife Rachel. Despite Jacob's realization that this favoritism only serves to alienate Joseph from his brothers, he continues his preferential treatment by giving Joseph an ornamented tunic that symbolizes Jacob's love for him. Do we, too, sometimes perpetuate certain behaviors despite their potentially negative consequences?
Like most people of his time, Jacob believed that dreams foretell the future. If that belief is true, do we really have freedom of choice? Could Jacob have changed anything in his life to make it more peaceful, or is everything predetermined by God?
Boaz Heilman (HUC-JIR, NY, '98) serves as the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Torah, Sudbury, MA.
Vayeishev, Genesis 37:1-40:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 244–260; Revised Edition, pp. 244–262;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 208–232