Friday, November 30, 2012

Truly Living: Parashat Vayishlach


     What does it mean to have truly lived?  This question is one of the most central in the history of philosophy, but often elicits trite and unfulfilling responses.  However, in the week’s portion, Vayishlach, Rashi provides a very moving and instructive response to this question.  In Genesis 32:5, Jacob claims that he lived with Laban for several years.  In the typical Jewish fashion, this seemingly straightforward and factual assertion leads to in-depth and surprising interpretations.  In Hebrew, the term “garti,” can mean that Jacob lived in the place, or it can mean that Jacob was a ger, a stranger.  No matter how long Jacob lived in that house with his relatives, he was never fully integrated into the family, and his status was never elevated above that of a stranger.  This statement tells us a great deal about the alienation that Jacob felt, and how vicious of a host Laban was.  We can be strangers anywhere, even in our own homes and in the context of our own families.
     The other interesting insight that Rashi makes is that the term garti, in Gematria(an accounting of the numerical values of each letter of the word) adds up to 613 – the number of mitzvot that are said to be contained in the Torah.  Even though Jacob lived in a place devoid of Torah values, he managed to stay true to all of the commandments of his tradition.  Jacob’s moral standing in our tradition is open to debate, but in this context, he managed to stay true to his upbringing and to Divine Law, even when it was excruciatingly difficult.
     What does it mean to have lived?  It means to maintain your sense of integrity – to be the same person with the same values in every locale.  In this context, Jacob does not live a fragmented life – being a Jew in one context, and someone else in another.  Rather, he stays true to his values in all places and times.  Jacob lives most of his life as a wanderer and a refugee, but he dwells in the stable territory of his unchanging values. 
       Our lives are such precious gifts.  Our most important obligation as Jews is to love life and live truly as moral humans and committed Jews.  This does not mean taking the path of greatest pleasure, but rather living a life of integrity, consistency, and righteousness. 

B’vrachot (with blessings),

Rabbi Isaacs