Settle Down – Parshat Vayeshev 5775

Growing up, I remember adults talking about how when they got married they “settled down.”  I always envisioned settling down as a time when life was in order, you were financially secure, kids were settled, and life just seemed to have a consistency.  Little did I know that my vision of “settling down” was far from the truth.  As a grown-up, I may have figured out my career, and I’m certainly not a free-spirited teenager anymore, but my life feels anything but settled.  We just moved across the country, and there are daily challenges, changes, and fun to be had with a toddler by my side.

Our parshah this week, parshat Vayeshev, details Jacob finding his family and his way to a more settled lifestyle.  Jacob’s sons are growing up, and the brothers begin their tormenting of one another.  The text deals with the pain Jacob feels when he learns of the “death” of Joseph and continues with Joseph in Egypt while his brothers make a mess of their own lives.  Jacob moves from feeling settled, having found a place to raise his large family, to feeling unease and unrest.

The Torah, however, ignores the unrest of Jacob’s life by stating in chapter 37, verse 1 “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan.”  According to Rashi, the great medieval commentator on our texts, the text is specific in using the word “settled” as if to say that Jacob thought he would finally settle down after all he’d been through, but events would not permit him to settle down.

Jacob so very much wanted to be settled.  We often set goals, like “I’ll settle down when I’m married…” only to realize that even when we reach these milestones, life is still full of challenges and uncertainties.  It appears that Jacob wanted to yashev, to sit, and let the world continue around him while he settled in for the long haul.  As we see by the storyline of his children, that was not the case.

Our parshah teaches us that while we may want to sit and settle into one place, it turns into complacency when we let the world happen around us without actually participating.  What we can do, however, is learn to be flexible and patient enough to always live our lives to the fullest, regardless of how settled we may feel at the time.

Take a Chance on Me – Parshat Vayeshev 5774

How much of life is “right place, right time”?  While some encounters are just one-time meetings with someone you may never run into again, other times a chance meeting can lead to a new job, a new love, or a new path in life.  We call this serendipity or fate.  Most of the time these little chance encounters turn out to be nothing extraordinary, just a regular part of interacting in the world.  Once in awhile a serendipitous meeting can change the course of your life for better orworse, but these larger consequences aren’t clear to us until later.

Our Torah portion this week, parshat Vayeshev, leaves us wondering how our story might have turned out without a particular serendipitous meeting.  We find ourselves in the thickof the Joseph story.   Joseph has two dreams that he shares with his brothers, both of which make them angry with him.  The brothers go out to pasture, Joseph finds them, the brothers decide to sell him, and father Jacob mourns for his “favorite son.”  After this the story takes a turn to focus on Joseph’s brother Judah and the betrayal of Tamar before turning back to Joseph’s life in Egypt, which ultimately lands him in jail.

This sounds like a classic case of sibling rivalry and brotherly hate; however, hidden inside this famous story is the importance of noticing chance encounters. In chapter 37, Joseph is sent out to find his brothers in the field asthey tend to the flocks.  Joseph searches for a while and comes up empty handed when there is a “man who came upon him.”  This man has no name and seemingly comes out of nowhere.  The appearance always reminds me of the man who calls himself Mr. Slugworth from the earlier Willy Wonka movie.  Rambam, the great medieval commentator teaches that the stranger who points Joseph in the direction of his brothers is an angel, sent to make sure that Joseph would not give up on his mission when he could not find his brothers immediately.  This man is never mentioned again in ourtext.

And, had Joseph never met this man, he would never have found his brothers or been sold into slavery, his family would never have followed him to Egypt, and thus there would never have been a new Pharaoh who enslaved the Jews.  If the Exodus had never have happened, the narrative of our people would have been remarkably different.  In the moment, did Joseph orthis man know the impact of their meeting? Probably not.  But looking back on it, it is impossible to toss aside the impact this mystery man had on not only Joseph’s life, but each of our lives as well.

We don’t usually know the consequences and outcomes of the little thoughtless acts of we perform every day.  But reading parshat Vayeshev reminds us that each encounter we have might be one that brings about a change, whether it’s the smile exchanged with a stranger, or the introduction to a future spouse.  Too often we write off these experiences and take them for granted, but if we paid attention to them every so often, we might be surprised with where life takes us.

If One Cries, You All Cry – Parshat Vayeshev 5773

When I was younger, my grandparents would take my cousins and me out for special days.  They’d work very hard to make certain that each of us was treated exactly the same way so none of us could accuse them of favoritism.  Occasionally, when we’d all get together, my cousins and I would go at each other.  I, of course, was never the cause of the fight, and I always made sure to let my Zayde know I was still his perfect little redhead.  Unfortunately, having raised three girls of his own, my Zayde was wise to my ways and always retorted with “If one of you cries, you all cry.”  That was usually enough to get us to knock it off. 
No one likes to think that someone else is receiving special treatment.  The simple explanation that because your older sister had to wait until she was eight to get her ears pierced, you’ll have to do the same will invariably elicit the response, “It’s not fair!”  We try to set standards of behavior and treatment to ensure that everyone gets a fair shot, whether or not it’s always interpreted that way.
In our parshah this week, Parshat Vayeshev, we see Jacob struggling with this very same challenge of parenting.  His brood of twelve sons and one daughter gives him many problems.  Jacob is no stranger to favoritism among parents; after all, we learn immediately upon his birth that Rebekah favors him and that Isaac favors Esau.  One would hope that Jacob learned from his parents’ mistake or learned from the pain he caused Leah when he made it clear that Rachel was his favored wife.  This is not the case.  Jacob picks favorites, and soon it becomes known to all his children that Joseph is the favorite.  Try as the other sons may, Joseph is the apple of his father’s eye, receives gifts from him, and is awarded preferential treatment. 
Joseph is definitely aware of his brothers’ resentment and his father’s favoritism towards him, and yet he continues to go on and on about his dreams of superiority over them.  Why does Joseph seem so unaware or unphased by the resentment his brothers express?  Aviva Zornberg, a modern commentator, reminds us that Joseph is an adolescent, unable to see clearly how his actions impact those around him.  The narcissism of Joseph’s youth and the jealousy of Joseph’s brothers led to a no win situation.  
Jacob choosing Joseph as a favorite child ultimately cost Jacob his son and his family for many years.  The text begs us to examine what favoritism and ego can do to a family and relationships.  Thinking only of ourselves or only of those we see as the “best” leads to painful consequences.  Zayde’s threat of “If one cries, you all cry” may have been a way to keep us in line, but it’s also a reminder of the value of a human life.  If one of us suffers, we all suffer.  If one person can bring respect and kindness to just one other person who needs it, imagine the possibilities.
THIS TOO IS TORAH:  One of the most memorable moments from the 1970s sitcom The Brady Bunch shows Jan Brady’s frustration when her older Marcia gets all the attention. Watch this short clip from the show. What do you think of the parents’ reaction? Do they show favoritism or are they fair?