Our forefather Jacob appears to be the perpetually ‘wandering Jew’. Forced to flee from his bloodthirsty brother and parents’ home to save his life, he spends a significant amount of time as a paying guest in his father-in-law Laban’s house, trying to survive constant deceit and trickery.
This week’s parsha, Vayeshev, takes its name from the first word of the opening line. It reflects Jacob’s desire to return home and settle down to peace and quiet. But no sooner has he expressed the wish than a torrent of divinely-ordained challenges arrives, beginning with the episode of Joseph and his brothers. Rashi informs us Jacob’s idea of a more tranquil life was not a state envisioned for him by God.
Vayeshev makes me ponder the idea life as a Jew is not a quest for early retirement but a series of challenges for meaning, growth and betterment of oneself and community.
Jacob’s story teaches me if my goal is a comfortable existence, then I had better wrap myself in cotton wool and never dream of achieving anything. Yisrael, our very name, denotes a relentless engagement and struggle that is inherent to the life of Am Yisrael.
Chanukah is the perfect time to reflect on this. The Talmud compares the Jewish people to the olive, which needs to be squeezed to produce valuable oil. The self-sacrifice of the Maccabees, against all odds, assured our survival. One dreads to think what would have happened had they decided to give up and resign themselves to their fate.
Rabbi Naftali Schiff is CEO of Jewish Futures Trust