By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
At times, the effort to discover depths of meaning in biblical texts results in what may seem to be a distortion of the meaning of the text. However, these seeming distortions, often referred to as “Chassidishe Torah,” may actually these reveal essential hidden truths.
The collected writings (known as Kedushat Levi) of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) contain classic examples of Chassidishe Torah. His ingenuity reveals layers of meaning that often expose vital truths inaccessible through the study of the plain text itself.
Consider the first verse in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23): “Jacob settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan.” The Hebrew for “the land where his father had sojourned“ is b’eretz megurei aviv. There is no dispute among the major commentators as to the meaning of those words.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, however, suggests an entirely different meaning of the word megurei. Elsewhere in the Bible, in admittedly very different contexts, that word means “fear,” “anxiety,” perhaps even “terror.” For example, in chapter 31 verse 14 of the book of Psalms, the phrase magor mesaviv translates as “terror on every side.” In chapter 33 verse 8, the phrase “mimenu yaguru” translates as “they will dread him.” Finally, in chapter 34 verse 5, the phrase “umikol megurosai hitzilani,” which translates as “He saved me from all my terrors.”
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s thesis is simple: One can easily justify this translation of the first verse of our Torah portion: “Jacob settled in the land of his father’s fears, the land of Canaan.” The significance of the phrase “his father’s fears” Is evident in Genesis 31:53, where we read of the oath that “Jacob swore by Pachad Yitzchak, the “Fear of his father Isaac.” Jacob’s father Isaac has come to represent fear and awe in the Jewish consciousness. In this week’s Torah portion, then, Jacob is returning to settle in the land where he cannot escape the fearfulness that characterized his father.
But what is the nature of his father’s fear? Rabbi Levi Yitzchak responds that
Isaac’s fears were distinctly spiritual in nature. He feared that he might fall short of the Almighty’s expectations of him. He was anxious lest he sin, and thereby distance himself from his desired and well-earned closeness to the Almighty.
It was to those spiritual fears that Jacob was returning when he returned to his father’s land. When he was distant from his father and struggling to adjust to his father-in-law Laban’s treacheries, he could not trouble himself to be concerned about his diminished relationship with the Lord. Now that he had returned to that land, he had to recover his “father’s fears.” He had to be afraid that perhaps his sins had caused a breach in his relationship with the Lord.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak uses his commentary to teach a practical lesson. He goes on to write as follows: “For each of us must serve the Lord at every moment and every occasion, so that we always rejoice when we see that it goes well for other Jews in the world, and so that if, heaven forbid, the reverse is true, we feel the pain of others and are consciously anxious lest we have sinned and are, thereby, somehow responsible for the misfortunes of others.”
Each Jew must rejoice when other Jews are fortunate and must not only suffer along with their misfortunes but must do whatever is possible to alleviate those misfortunes.
Jacob’s “father’s fears” are not mere anxieties. Rather, they are based upon a felt connection with others and an abiding concern that one’s own failures may somehow affect others in his family, his community, his nation, and the world. We must rectify our own shortcomings for the ultimate benefit of those around us.
Jacob’s return to his father’s land was not a mere geographic change of location. It was a change in his sense of responsibility for others. He would now be motivated to better himself so that others could gain from his closeness to the Almighty.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president, emeritus of the Orthodox Union.