Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild
”And Jacob lived where his father had only been passing through, in the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 37:1).
Many commentators have tried to explain this sentence which is so heavily laden with meaning, for it raises some fundamental questions by positing a contrast between two terms – to ”live” somewhere or to 'wander” somewhere – the English word ”sojourn” means to be pausing while on a journey. What does it mean to ”live” somewhere? To become a citizen? To 'put down roots’? To purchase a property and own land or a house? To speak the language as well as those who were raised here, without a foreign accent? To share the same culture, religion, values as the majority population, the 'host’ population? Plus – Who gives a country its name? Who has the 'right’ to live there? Can one inherit the right, may one fight for the right to call a country ”your own”? Is not every country little more than a part of the same planet, what meaning may borders and boundaries have, are we not ALL mere wanderers over the earth’s surface? What separates, what unites? By this time in the Torah we have met people who claim to be 'Kings’ of Gerar, of Sodom, of Egypt and so forth. Who made them such, what right to they have to rule? Kings usually have an unhealthy tendency to employ (or misuse) Religion to back up their claims for earthly power, they recruit amenable priests to give them a certificate of 'Kashrut’, to proclaim that they sit on their thrones because of the will of God or of the Gods. It is an age-old habit and people still fall for it, even now!
The verse has so much deeper meaning one could talk for a week about it. Jacob’s father Isaac had in fact also been born here – it was his grandfather Abraham who had immigrated from Iraq via Syria. Jacob’s mother Rivka had been brought from Haran (Syria) to marry Isaac, and his twin brother Esau eventually heads off to what becomes known as Edom after his reddish colour. Edom is east of the Jordan, Canaan to the west; Jacob had had to flee his brother’s anger and lust for revenge by fleeing northwards to Syria and on eventually returning had had to encounter Esau again, make an uneasy truce with him, had then bought some land at Shechem in the north of the country (now known as Nablus – an Arabic version of a Greek name 'Neapolis’ which means simply 'Newtown’) – built at the site of and over the remains of the old town – you see, even this issue of names reflects different periods of history, different inhabitants and their cultures. (Much as with Danzig and Gdańsk, Breslau and Wrocław….) But due to a violent incident he could not stay there and had to head further south, into Canaan….
Yes, he settles here, with twelve sons (for a while) and a dishonoured and unmarriageable daughter – we never hear of Dinah marrying later – but soon one of the sons, his favourite one, will vanish, presumed killed and when, many years later, this son is miraculously found again and the family comes to Egypt to save itself from famine, and Pharaoh asks Jacob how old he is, he will answer (Genesis 47:9) ”Yemei Shenei Megurai sheloshim-uMe’ah Shanah” – ”the days of my WANDERINGS are 130 Years” – and then he will describe his lifespan as being ”Me’at veRa’im” – ”Few and evil” and not as long as the ”years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojournings” – ”velo hisigu et-yemei Sh’nei Chayay Avotai, bimey M’Gureyhem.” He never says he ever felt ”settled” anywhere, it seems he feels he was always a wanderer just like his ancestors.
Can one explain this by saying he was a nomad, living in tents and not in cities? Part of a deliberately-wandering minority? That could be one explanation. There are – there have always been – people who prefer to travel, maybe on the seas, maybe as merchants, drivers, explorers, people who seem to spend a lot of their lives on trains and aeroplanes or on the motorways, maybe as nomadic shepherds, maybe even as homeless beggars – rather than be fixed and 'tied down’ to a specific place. There have however also been others who wanted to settle, wanted to be 'at home’, maybe even thought they had achieved this, had built homes and planted crops – but then were forced to move on again.
Jews have spent most of their history as a minority in other nations’ countries – even if the word 'nation’ meant different things in the third century BCE or in the 19th. century CE., as a tribal or an ethnic or a political entity. We did not always feel we were 'Gerim’, passing through; a Ger Toshav is a stranger who lives with you as opposed to someone who has just, say, a transit visa or a tourist visa or a working visa. A Ger Toshav is someone who immigrates and integrates. No, we often felt we were indeed 'at home’ – it was the ideology of Zionism that confronted Jews with the uncomfortable truth that even when everyone else had stopped being just subjects of various Kings or Dukes and Emperors, but had now become citizens of newly-formed nations, French or Italians or Austrians or Germans – Jews were still Jews, still a separate minority and perceived as something different, foreign, often uncomfortable or even threatening. Zionism told Jews – ”You might as well accept this, make something positive out of it, you have to go to settle your OWN Homeland.” But this brought many ironies with it. An Oleh or Olah, someone who makes aliyah to Israel, remains for the rest of their lives an Oleh; but their children, born there, are Sabras. Native-born. Now we are witness to an interesting reverse process: Some Israelis decide, for various quite justifiable reasons, to move to America or to Europe, and they remain Israelis in America and Europe even though they settle down and marry locally; but their children – are they Israelis or Americans with an Israeli father? Poles with an Israeli background or Israelis living in Poland?
And what about those 'melting pot’ societies such as the United States or Australasia where NONE of the ancestors of the current white inhabitants lived on this land until at most a couple of centuries ago, when they deliberately moved there but with the intention of settling, and without asking permission of the existing inhabitants! And the real natives or aborigines are now pressed back into being a minority and under-class in their own countries? The countries and continents even being given totally new names? 'Virginia’ named for Queen Elizabeth I, the 'Virgin Queen’? Washington after a general and statesman? The Carolinas after King Charles? Louisiana for King Louis? New South Wales being named after the 'old’ South Wales, Victoria after another British queen? Even the term 'America’ comes from an explorer, Amerigo Vespucci from Florence, 1454-1512 who actually worked out in 1502 that Brazil could not be the Eastern coast of China and so there had to be another continent blocking the way from Portugal to Asia. In 1507 this 'New World’ was then named after his first name, latinized. What fame!
There are many ironies in naming. 'Transjordan’ was the name given to the area 'across the Jordan’ when seen from the West, in 1922. (West of the Jordan was 'Cisjordan’, meaning ”This side”.) In 1946 the country became independent, as 'Transjordan’, but two years later after it had occupied land west of the river – the 'West Bank’ – it changed its name to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – because it was now situated on both sides of the river, not 'across’ it any more! From the perspective of the Bible, when the Israelites following Moses were in the Land of Moab, the term 'Across the Jordan’ means from East to West! And Jews are so named because they were considered to be descended from the people of Judea – see Mordechai who is so described as an 'Ish Yehudi’ in the Megillat Esther – whereas the Other Kingdom established after Solomon’s death was 'Israel’!
So is a part of ”living” somewhere being able to give it whatever name you want? Or is to be able to purchase land and to establish oneself, to buy rather than to rent, to build and to establish? To have a vote? In what used to be the 'United Kingdom’ we have heard voices telling European citizens that they are not somehow 'British enough’ despite possibly living and working there for decades, paying taxes, educating their children there – no, suddenly the Former United Kingdom as I call it has dissolved into squabbling minorities and even I, born and raised and educated there, someone who ”lived” there though my father arrived as a refugee, a country-less wanderer, now find myself a wanderer in a strange land that no longer feels like ”my own”. And I know I am not alone in this. The entire political and social atmosphere has been poisoned with each group telling the other groups that they ”don’t belong”. Not just because they may be Jewish (though this has in fact been raised as an issue), but because they may be pro-Europeans or anti-Europeans, pro-Scots or anti-Scots, pro-Welsh or anti-Welsh, pro-democracy or pro-referendum or whatever. And I gather that certain other countries in Europe – not so far away – are not much better.
Everyone shouts. Nobody listens.
This is often the trouble with biblical verses, especially the ones that seem so simple and harmless. They jump out and bite you when you are not expecting it. This is why one must read, and read carefully, and search for any lessons, and apply them as best one can. Some things may appear old and old-fashioned, but there is much that never changes.