The Massachussetts driver’s manual notes that: A 'thickly settled' district is an area where houses or other buildings are located, on average, less than 200 feet apart. As a result, the state uses the “Thickly Settled” designation to impose a complex set of speed limits in such locales…which I guess is Massachussetts’ way of telling us: be extra careful…that there’s something potentially hazardous about traversing through a Thickly Settled Zone.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayeishev, carries the same message. The text opens with the words vayeishev Yaakov. A pshat (surface level) reading of the text indicates that Jacob’s settling was something that happened in a geographic context. The opening verse says that he settled b’eretz m’gurei aviv – b’eretz k’na’an (in the land of his fathers - in the Land of Canaan). Jacob’s settling was done in a certain place.
Avivah Zornberg, following Rashi, observes that: “Jacob would like to settle his life, to find some measure of tranquility after all his troubles. One might even say that it is characteristic of [some] to yearn for such a “settling,” a clarification of the turbulences and anguish of life.”
Here, then, we can see that our tradition speaks of settling not just in the realm of the geographic, but also in the existential.
To become settled, and to feel settled, may at first glance seem to be a positive thing. The term implies a certain sense of relaxation, or lack of stress. At the end of a long trip, we settle in at our destination. And at the end of a move, our goal is to feel settled in.
But our tradition is also critical of Jacob for entering into this ‘thickly settled’ state of being. And perhaps one of the reasons for that is because of an awareness on our part that when we settle, we become more passively disengaged from the world around us.
Indeed, Jacob’s settled-ness…his active disengagement from what was going on around him, is one explanation for the fissures of familial dysfunction that crop up in this part of the narrative. It could explain his absence in the earlier story of the Rape of Dinah, and it sheds light on his ironic insensitivity in this week’s parsha when he favors Joseph over his other sons.
Like the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, our tradition urges us to be particularly conscious of our behavior and attitude during the times of our lives when we realize how “thickly settled” we have become.
Indeed, we are lucky to be able to mark the conglomerated festival of Thanksgivukkah next week, because gratitude and a sense of appreciation for the miracles that are daily a part of our lives are at the heart of both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. And it seems to me that fostering the soul-trait of gratitude is the perfect antidote to feeling settled.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi offers us a kavannah that is most appropriate for this Thanksgivukkah season. He writes: “We need to create a litany of our blessings. Take a minute. Close your eyes. Think of [the] blessings in your life. Create this menorah of thankfulness. Whenever you say modim (prayer of gratitude) […] or light the […] candles or have a spare moment, recite the blessings on your menorah of thankfulness.”
As we give voice to the blessings of our lives, and unsettle ourselves in the process, so may we be blessed.