In Yaakov’s ideal world, Parashat VaYeishev should have been the last Parashah in Sefer BeReishit, and a very short one at that. The man was in his early 100s at the start of the Parashah, and had had a very tumultuous and stressful life. He had deceived his father, angered his brother into a murderous rage against him, and fled from home to a foreign country where he worked tirelessly for 20 years. He was tricked there as well, and very likely could have ended up hopeless, defeated, or even dead. And when Yaakov finally leaves Lavan’s house for home, the stress doesn’t stop: He meets up with his vengeful brother, fearing for his life, wrestles with an angel and receives a new name, his daughter is assaulted, his sons follow that by slaughtering an entire town, and he has to bury his wife. All in all, Yaakov had had it with an adventurous life; all he wanted to do was settle down.
The Pesukim hint at this idea, in that Parashat VaYishlach ends with a long list of names of descendants and family of Eisav, similar to many closings of characters’ stories in Tanach. The paradigmatic structure of a character’s plot is: He is born, stories are told about his life, his legacy is detailed, and he dies. The same thing was anticipated for Yaakov: The Parashah begins with, “VaYeishev Yaakov BeEretz Megurei Aviv,” “And Yaakov settled in the land where his forefathers had lived” (Bereishit 37:1). The juxtaposition of two similar words meaning “to live” shows the nuanced difference between Yaakov and his father and grandfather. While Yitzchak and Avraham were more transient, moving around from place to place, expressed by the word “Gar,” Yaakov wanted to settle down, and just stay in one spot, the connotation of the word “Yashav.” Yaakov was anticipating that his “working” life was over; he was ready for retirement.
However, the plot of Parashat VaYeishev is completely the opposite. It is full of movement, from start to finish. The story of Mechirat Yosef begins with Yosef’s brothers’ moving, “VaYeilchu…BiShechem” (37:12), and concludes with the detail of multiple transactions and Yosef’s being brought down to Egypt. Even in the stories of Yosef in Potifar’s house, the Pesukim stress that he was brought down; “Hurad” is repeated in 39:1, and in the context of Eishet Potifar’s approaching Yosef, the Pasuk repeats “VaYanas HaChutzah” (39:12-13). So many characters are moving throughout this Parashah – even outside the Yosef narrative, in the story of Yehudah and Tamar, the story begins with Yehuda’s “going down from his brothers” (38:1). Seemingly, the only stagnant character in VeYeishev is Yaakov himself!
Yaakov indeed wanted to settle down. However, he did not realize that there was one more important challenge that he had to manage: Yosef. Rashi famously alludes to this with his comment on the Pasuk at the beginning of VaYeishev: Ya’akov desired to live in tranquility, and the troubles of Yosef were thrust upon him. The Parashah continues (37:2) as if Yaakov’s recorded life is over, with the line “Eileh Toledot Yaakov,” “These are the descendants of Yaakov,” but without even a break in the Pasuk, it continues “Yosef Ben Sheva Esrei Shanah…VaYavei Yosef Et Dibatam Ra’ah El Avihem” “Yosef was 17 years old…and he brought evil reports of [his brothers] to their father.” The lack of pause in the Pasuk teaches us that just as Yaakov was settling down, he got “cut off”, as another story was already taking place. Yaakov wanted to retire, but his son Yosef was so active, and already getting himself into trouble with his brothers, that he was bound to take over Yaakov’s attention.
However, Yaakov failed to get involved. Instead of reprimanding Yosef for distancing himself from his brothers’ respect, he gave him a fancy coat, making Yosef even more self-confident. And when Yosef told Yaakov one of his dreams, the first time that he is reprimanded is not only about the content of the dream, but also by a phrase added by Yaakov: Yaakov responds to Yosef, “Mah HaChalom HaZeh Asher Chalamta, HaVo Navo Ani VeImecha VeAchecha LeHishtachavot Lecha Artzah” “What is this dream that you have dreamt? Are I, your mother, and your brothers, going to come and bow down to you?” (37:10). Yaakov inserted the phrase “HaVo Navo,” as if to say that he is concerned about going somewhere. Yaakov was as concerned with his retirement as he was with the actual disturbing prediction of the dream itself!
This phrase, “HaVo Navo” underscores Yaakov’s whole thinking throughout the beginning of his narrative. Yaakov felt like he had worked hard in life, and was ready to go home and live out the rest of it. But he didn’t understand that his job was not just to earn a living, but to maintain his role in Judaism. Yaakov was the “father” of Judaism – Avraham was the founder, but Yaakov grew the family into a large clan. He was the one who spread Judaism amongst many children, passing it on not just to a single child, but to many tribes and families across that generation, who would in turn enlarge with their own children.
What Yaakov failed to understand is that parenthood is a full-time job, especially fathering a nation. He could not let his guard down for even a short while, lest devastating consequences might result. This is precisely what happened with Yosef. Yosef was over-confident to a degree that his entire family was disenchanted with him at best, hated him at worst. But Yaakov was so focused on settling down peacefully, so considered by “HaVo Navo,” the possibility that he might have to move yet again, that he failed to see the split occurring in his own family. Yosef was carving a path into dangerous territory, one that ended in his sale, but Yaakov did nothing about it. The most active of the Avot grew passive in his old age, and let his perceived respite get to him, so much so that he lost a son.
Reproduction is one of the most important Mitzvot in the Torah; it is the first commandment given by Hashem to all creatures: “Peru URevu UMil’u Et HaAretz” (BeReishit 1, repeated many times). But the mere act of creating new life is not the end of the act; the entire parenting process that follows is just as important. Yaakov was tasked with the all-important job of fathering Am Yisrael, and he did a fine job. He physically fathered 12 sons, each one eventually growing into its own full-fledged tribe. But Yaakov nearly lost the entire nation because he stopped working on his job as father.
As Bnei Torah, each one of us has a responsibility to continue the Jewish tradition. We have to nurture it within ourselves, and pass it on to the next generation. And with all of the glitz and the lights and the over-active atmosphere of the world today, we may just want to take a step back for a while, and relax within our personal confines. But that is not our job; our job is to keep pushing on the Jewish tradition. We, like Yaakov, are tasked with fathering the next generation, and cannot let it go. It is ours to raise, and if we are to learn from Yaakov and Yosef, it is ours to watch and protect even as we grow old. As we grow older and out children do so as well, we may not want to play such an active role in their development. But that does not mean that we should step away from all responsibility. We have to maintain a watchful, protectful eye over our children, and make sure they continue in our path, and become not like Yosef the nearly-dead, but like Yosef HaTzadik.