This is the text I'll be teaching at our Torah study at my shul this coming Shabbat morning -- an extended riff on the first sentence of this week's portion. This is a short text from R' Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch; he was known as the "defense attorney" for the Jewish people, because it was believed that he could intercede on their behalf before God. The text comes from ספר קעשת–לוי, page פג–פד. The translation is my own.
On embodying the qualities of our ancestors
"And Jacob dwelt in the land where his father had sojourned (or: where his father had been a stranger), the land of Canaan." (Genesis 37:1)
One way to understand this comes from Ramban in his book Faith and Trust. He writes that the Holy One of Blessing made a promise to Jacob our father, and Jacob's side of the bargain was to live in a state of יראה (yir'ah), awe/fear, fearing that which causes one to sin and therefore to stop serving one's Creator.
Each of us should strive to serve God in every moment. We are called to live in joy when we sees that our fellows have goodness in this world; but if, God forbid, things are turned around (and our fellows suffer), we need to share in their sorrows. And we should always be concerned about that which causes sin and thereby causes us not to be able to serve the Creator.
Jacob lived at this high spiritual level, in a state of yir'ah of that which causes sin and which would then make him unable to turn his hands to his obligation to his Creator. And this is what is meant when it is written: "Jacob dwelled in the land where his father had sojourned" (or "where his father had been a stranger") -- which is to say, he always had fear. The word "sojourned" / " been a stranger" implies a kind of fear. In what way was Jacob fearful? He was afraid of not being able to serve his Creator.
The land where "his father" had sojourned -- this is to say, he had the qualities of his father, e.g. the fear which characterized Isaac, as Isaac served his Creator through the quality of awe/fear, as it says, "the Fear of Isaac." (Genesis 31:42 -- "If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, hadn't been on my side...")
Questions for consideration:
1. What does it mean to us to live in the land where our parents sojourned? In what ways is this true for you, or not true for you?
2. How do you respond to the idea that we are called to live in yir'ah of God? That we are called to live in yir'ah lest we sin and therefore become unable to serve?
3. How is the condition of "sojourning" or "being a stranger" connected with fear?
4. What brings forth yir'ah in you?