Embracing Imbalance: Vayeishev
Vayeishev: Genesis 37:1-40.23
Vayeishev, the name and first word of this week’s Torah portion has caused much ink to be spilled. Vayeishev is translated in English to mean: “And he settled,” referring to Jacob finally settling down “in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan.” [Gen. 37:1] Our sages tell us that Jacob believed God’s blessing to Abraham had now been fulfilled through his life and in his settling down in Canaan: the Promised Land. After all—doing his own math—between his grandfather’s, his father’s and his own “sojourning,” plus his years of slavery and affliction under Laban, Jacob wants to believe that, give or take a couple hundred years, the “metaphor” of God’s foreseeing 400 years of slavery in Egypt was now interpretatively fulfilled. “Now,” writes Avivah G. Zornberg (The Beginning of Desire, p.245) “‘Jacob’s mind was settled’: things seemed to fall into proper perspective, a kind of clarity and coherence invested in the narrative of family history, as he set himself to read it.”
Who can blame Jacob? Even if it requires re-interpreting our own narrative somewhat, aren’t we all yearning for balance, stability, peace of mind; a time when we will finally be able to settle down? Yishuv ha-da’at, the settling of the mind, as the midrash calls it, is praised in our tradition as a state of consciousness attained as one grows wiser. It is opposed to tiruf ha-da’at—literally meaning to be of torn mind—bewildered, confused, lacking awareness. After our sojourning, after years of hard work and our facing many difficulties along the way, we identify with Jacob. “Balance” is our leitmotiv. We seek greater work-life balance, to eat more balanced meals; we go to yoga class to achieve balance in our body. We project onto spirituality the task of making us more balanced beings, to find stillness within chaos.
But that isn’t Reality is it? No true yoga practice has as a goal to help us find perfect balance, but rather to help us live increasingly aware of the fact that balance is but a never-ending counter act to our inherent imbalance. There is no such a thing as standing still, sitting still or even lying still. Finding balance while riding a bicycle is about continuously correcting the imbalance caused by pressing on one pedal or the other. Walking is a perpetual state of imbalance, moment to moment catching ourselves from falling. There is nothing in life, nothing in the Universe that ever is in an absolute static state of balance. Everything is always in flux, always changing. So why, like Jacob, do we pursue this illusion? And if you think the purpose of spirituality is to help you become a more balanced being, think again! The pithiest, yet most powerful one-word spiritual mantra I ever came across is: “Further!” And that is what Rashi himself is saying, commenting on this first verse, and quoting a midrash where God is exclaiming that especially the righteous shouldn’t “seek to dwell in contentment in this world!” — no yishuv ha-da’at for us. Our task, therefore, might not be to find balance, but to embrace the imbalances in our life. Imbalance is that force which impels us forward, helping us grow through course-correction. Resisting or fighting imbalance and change is akin to resisting and fighting Reality itself. Consciously making peace with it is what truly frees us.
But Jacob couldn’t do that. He denied Reality in the name of what Zornberg calls his “cognitive and aesthetic ambition to see history resolved, sojournings over… What ‘leaps upon him’ [instead] is the wild animal that [he is told] tears Joseph apart—tarof toraf Yosef. Instead of yishuv ha-da’at, clarity, composure, coherence, there is tiruf ha-da’at, confusion, bewilderment, loss of consciousness.” (p.247) Life is a wild animal. It is our desire to tame it, to control it—futile as it may be—that is ultimately the cause of our own misery. A better strategy might be for us to allow that wild animal to roam free.