The themes of a parasha don’t change much over time. The words are the same this year as a year ago. So as the years continue, I find myself coming back to the same big themes each time we read the parasha anew. In the past I have written about Vayishlach and the question of borders, the issue of demarcation. Jacob’s wrestling occurs just before he crosses the Jabbok river, the dividing line between the land of the Israelites and the land of the Edomites in the ancient world. When his family settles near Shechem, the abduction of Dinah raises the question of division and borders again: what will be the lines of separation between the children of Israel and their neighbors? Will they intermarry, and on what terms?
Indeed, even the name of the parasha itself–Vayishlach, ‘And he sent,’ implies a crossing. Parshat Vayishlach, like parshat Vayetzei before it, dwells on questions of separation and unity, division and integrity. And the essence seems to be in Israel’s name: ki-sarita im elohim v’im anashim v’tuchal – “for you have wrestled with God and with man and proved able” (Gen. 32:29).
In my line of work I like to point out that Jacob is working out the questions of a young adult. He leaves his home of birth for a long sojourn away, and in the process marries, has children, finds a vocation. Parshat Vayishlach marks the moment when he seems to truly grown into his adulthood, as he acquires a new name, puts to rest the lingering questions of his adolescent rivalry with his brother, establishes a home in his homeland. The narrative now turns to his children. Jacob is at home.
“Where do you feel at home?” is the biggest of the big questions, in my view. It is the question we constantly ask ourselves, consciously and unconsciously, as we situate ourselves in space and time. When we feel at home we feel at ease; when we don’t feel at home, we feel excitement or anxiety; we experience displacement. Thus the value of hospitality to strangers in virtually all cultures, and the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim in ours.
The idea of home is inseparable from the idea of borders, of inside and out. When does a stranger become a guest, and when does a guest become “like family?” How do we cross the thresholds of difference, approaching one another in degrees of kinship and sameness? These are the eternal questions.
Of course, in today’s world, there are fascinating additional wrinkles: How do we maintain our integrity as individuals even as we find similarity and forge a commons? (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the most eloquent writer on this question, what he terms the Dignity of Difference.) And given that the Internet is changing our very notions of time and space, what does it mean to maintain integrity as a nation, or as a person? (Witness two stories out of Israel today: One in which Israeli intelligence appears to have used a computer worm to damage the Iranian government’s nuclear centrifuges; the other in which Facebook has been used to identify Israeli soldiers who participated in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, including their home addresses. It is one of the biggest changes the Internet has wrought: we can conduct warfare from the comfort of our own homes.)
And yet, we all–even those young adults so seemingly at home with homelessness–keep trying to make home. We keep trying to do the work of Jacob, as though it were a compulsion. And so it would appear to be. One of the refrains I have heard in my conversations with young adults this fall, more so than in years past, is this: “I’m not using email on Shabbat.” They’re not doing this from a place of commandedness by halakha (Jewish law), but out of a hunger to find a center, a yearning to be grounded and free from distractions, at least for one day a week. (Judith Shulevitz’s book may well have helped.) Admist this time when they move from place to place on a yearly basis, when they, like Jacob their ancestor, are neither in their parents’ home nor the home of theirs that is yet to be, they–like all of us–long for coherence, hunger for home. The more things change, the more they remain the same.