Too often when reading Torah, we get hooked on the drama and miss the message. Parashat Vayeshev is a case in point. The story is so rich and well known—Joseph and his coat of many colors, Joseph sold into slavery, Joseph falsely accused of rape and thrown into prison for years—that we gloss over the opening verse in order to get the “good parts”. This is the hazard of reading Torah. The corrective is turning Torah.
Two thousand years ago the Jewish sage Ben Bag Bag taught, “Turn Her and turn Her for everything is in Her.” (Pirke Avot 5:21) The “Her” is Torah. Turning Torah means that we engage with each verse, perhaps each word and sometimes each letter as if everything we need to know at this moment is in Her. And as we turn Torah, Torah turns us, spins us around and around until we are unable to cling to our narratives and neuroses and are invited to see what is true rather than what we often so desperately wish were true. So, let’s turn the opening verse of Vayeshev:
Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as a stranger, the land of Canaan. This is the story of the family of Jacob. (Bereshit 37:1)
The Hebrew for “Jacob settled” is the name of our parasha: vayeshev: which also means “and (va) he sat (yeshev): Jacob sat in the place where his father, Isaac, lived as a stranger. Don’t think history or geography. When read as history Torah is muffled and cannot speak Her greatest truths to you. When Torah is turned, She is turned not as history but as revelation: pulling back the protective curtain of ego that blocks you from spiritual maturation to reveal mochin d’gadlut, the greater Divine Self that is your truest nature.
Turned in this way, Torah isn’t talking about Jacob; Torah is talking about you. And to you. You have settled in the land where your parents lived as strangers.
What does it mean to be a stranger, a ger in Hebrew? It means to live with radical insecurity. It means never belonging. It means never to feel at home even in the place you call home. It means to live with constant anxiety. And “this is the story of the family of Jacob.”
Being a stranger is in the DNA of what it is to be Jewish. I imagine that for many the State of Israel was thought to be an antidote to our alienation. But life in Israel is no less anxiety producing than life anywhere else we Jews live. Why? Because our sense of being a stranger isn’t sociological or political, but psychological and spiritual.
Jacob’s other name is Yisrael: One who wrestles (yisra) with God (El) (Bereshit 32:28). Jacob doesn’t defeat God, but merely holds on to God the way he once held on to the heel of his twin brother Esau at the moment of their birth (Bereshit 25:26). Jacob/Yisrael are hangers on. What they hang to is the illusion of order, certainty and security.
Torah makes a point of naming this land in which Jacob dwells Canaan. Canaan comes from the Hebrew kanna, “to order chaos”. Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as a stranger, the land of Canaan is to say that Jacob like his father (and mother) lived in the illusion that one can order chaos. But this cannot be done. Not by Jacob, not by you, not even by God.
God is YHVH (Shemot 3:14). YHVH comes from the verb “to happen;” YHVH is the Happening happening as all happening, and all happening is tohu va’vohu: wild, untamable, chaotic (Bereshit 1:2). God doesn’t defeat chaos in order to create the world, because God is chaos. Rather God lays a linguistic veneer of order over chaos (Bereshit 1:3): And God said: Let there be this, let there be that, and this and that were…. But this and that—all the ways in which life seems ordered and reliable—rest on a bed of chaos. Life is at its heart tohu va’vohu, and you are forever living in its midst. There is no escape from this. Indeed, this is what it is to be alive: to live in the midst of chaos, to live in the midst of God.
Dwelling in Kanna is living in an endless sea of isms and ideologies promising order and security. But such promises are hollow. There is no defense against tohu va-vohu; there is no escape from insecurity and anxiety. As long as you dwell in Kanna you dwell in illusion. So, what do you do? Three things.
First, you have to accept God, Reality, as it is: tohu va-vohu, fluid, chaotic, and beyond all your imagining and imaginary order.
Second, you have to stop trusting the narratives that promise you the impossible: security and salvation. This is what God calls Abram and Sarai to do when God challenges them to “abandon the narratives of nationality, ethnicity, and family and journey to the reality I will show you” (Bereshit 12:1). In other words, let yourself be surrendered to the chaos of life; don’t resist what is; don’t impose what you desperately wish would be. Simply be present to, in, with Reality as it is. And in this way be awake to YHVH.
Third, as YHVH carries you along, you discover the capacity to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Bereshit 12:3). You discover that everyone is struggling against what is, and because they are, they are the more miserable for it. Yet you have the power to be a blessing by reaching out and helping them put aside their illusions, yield to what is and in that yielding to discover the grace of surrender and the presence of God in with and as chaos.
Don’t let the story of Jacob’s family be the story of your family as well. Don’t settle in kanna, the desperate effort to order the wildness of life. Move on.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).