The Threat of Serenity

I've never skied, and I never intend to ski. In fact, I don't understand why anyone does. It seems to me that the things all skiers have in common are the bruises and broken bones inevitably acquired in the winter months.
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Marina beach, India.
Marina beach, India.

The inspiration for this reflection came from a conversation many years ago with a friend about their love of skiing.

I've never skied, and I never intend to ski. In fact, I don't understand why anyone does. It seems to me that the things all skiers have in common are the bruises and broken bones inevitably acquired in the winter months.

Which is what I mentioned to my friend, who explained to me that, for him, skiing is a chance to relax and feel at peace. This was even more strange for me to hear, because when I relax, I like to do nothing. I spend most of my waking hours thinking and working and doing, and so when I can find a free moment I just love settling down into a comfortable chair with a cup of tea and either read a book or fall asleep.

The tension between these two ways of achieving peace are tied to the very first verse in this week's Torah Portion, VaYeshev. We read

Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan. (Genesis 37:1)

Though the words, even in the Hebrew, don't particularly call attention to themselves, Jewish tradition has seen multiple layers within Jacob's desire to settle down. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki ("Rashi"), adapting older midrashic sources, writes,

Jacob wished to live in serenity, when suddenly the drama of Joseph collided with him. When righteous people try to live lives of serenity, the Holy Blessed One says, "It's not enough for the righteous that which they have in store in the world to come, that they wish also to live serene lives in this world?!"

Rashi suggests that the struggle of a holy life does have a reward, but that a person worthy of reward doesn't slow down to collect. But, just for a moment, think of Jacob, a man who has already done a tremendous amount of living. He has emerged from a childhood trauma with his brother and parents, has worked 14 years to begin his family, has re-encountered his estranged brother, endured the pain of his own children's violence and suffering. He's weathered the journey of a lifetime, and simply wants to settle down. And if we didn't know what was coming next, we might expect his life's story to be near its end. But, thanks in part to Andrew Lloyd Webber, we know that this "inspiring tale" twists and turns quite a few more times before Jacob truly finds rest.

Our opening verse spoke of a land of "sojourning." Every patriarch and matriarch of Genesis had numerous stops during their wanderings. The notion of "home" was painfully elusive, we might imagine.

There is a famous parable that connects the concept of journeying with God's choice of Abraham as the first to carry the message. The Torah's text tells us virtually nothing about Abraham before his first call from God (Gen. 12:1), and so the midrash creates a back story:

This is like a man who was traveling from place to place, when he saw a castle on fire. He thought, "Can you say that this castle is without a master?' Then, the master of the castle looked out at him, and said, "I am the master of the castle!" In the same way, since Abraham our father was constantly wondering, "Can you say this world is without a Master?" God looked at him and said, "I am Master of the world!" (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 39:1)

This story has elicited years of thought, many essays and books, and so full understanding will remain impossible. But I do see one thing clearly illustrated in its words: Abraham would never have merited the call if he had stayed still. Traveling from place to place is the backdrop to Abraham's spiritual growth. Abraham's becoming settled, too comfortable, with his life's journey until that point would have robbed him, and us, of an exquisite relationship with God, of the possibilities he'd open with each next step he would take. So too, for his grandson Jacob. So too, for us.

While still a rabbinical student in New York City, I read a poem by Mark Strand, displayed on the NYC subway system as a part of an add campaign called "Poetry in Motion." I offer Strand's words here with both the wish that the world should truly come closer to peace, and with the knowledge that peace will only come if we continue journeying forward.

In a field
I am the absence of field.
This is always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body's been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

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