Vayishlach: ‘Away From Home’

So poor were Jacob and Ruth that they slowly began to feel as if they had no choice but to let their son Joshua leave home and travel to the coast. Joshua had for a long time been asking his parents to allow him to go to find work as a merchant. Jacob and Ruth, however, had always denied him permission to leave, fearing that their righteous son would be badly influenced by the kinds of dishonest and unpleasant people for which the coastal market places were famous. Indeed, Jacob and Ruth had known people who, after having become merchants themselves, had discarded the Torah and mitzvot, filling their lives instead with the pursuit of money, glamour and material things. They did not want this to happen to their own son.

In time however life became increasingly difficult and Joshua’s parents finally allowed him to go. “Beware of bad people and wrongdoing,” they warned him,“and return as soon as you have earned enough to make our lives a little easier.” Joshua packed some clothes and a few parcels of food into a bag and set off for the coast. Though very excited, Joshua kept in mind the concerns of his parents and was determined not to let them down.

Standing at the top of a hill at the beginning of a path which led down to the sea, Joshua marvelled at the scene in front of him. Enormous flat, sandy beaches had been sculpted by the ocean into a giant mouth, the lips stretching far out into the sparkling water. This wide, gaping mouth was a hub of activity, filled with boats and ships of all shapes and sizes, some arriving, others departing, most carrying some cargo or other. Larger boats were moored some distance out, while smaller vessels came ashore.

Between Joshua and the beach, at the bottom of the hill, was a stretch of grassy land which spanned the full width of the harbour. This platform was alive with commerce. Hundreds of trading stalls were attended by even more tradesmen, buying, bartering, exchanging, haggling and demonstrating the quality of their wares. Joshua’s face lit up. Never had he seen such a picture and never had his imagination pictured such a scene. Even from where Joshua stood, all his senses were tantalised. His eyes were dazzled by a thousand rainbows of colour, his ears were bemused by the calls of people and the cries of seagulls circling and diving, and his nose delighted at a meal of fragrances it had never smelled before. Joshua walked on, now mentally preparing himself to meet with some of these people against whom his parents had warned him.

In only a matter of weeks, Joshua found a place to live, and was introduced to a silk merchant who was willing to teach him his trade. It was a very busy life. Joshua had to get up before dawn every day and work in the market with hardly a break until the sun descended below the orange-scarlet horizon. There was only one day a week the market place was not open, and Joshua was pleased it happened to be Shabbat. Nevertheless it was not easy to continue practising the mitzvot and learning Torah amid the busy hubbub of a merchant’s life.

Joshua learnt the silk trade quickly and before long owned his own stall and was becoming quite wealthy. He never left dry land himself but instead employed seamen to travel across the world for him. These sailors would return heavily laden with beautiful silks they had bought cheaply but for which Joshua would secure high prices.

Meanwhile Joshua’s parents had begun to rent to a farmer a little land which they owned. The farmer paid them a monthly rent for the land which he made into a wheat field and from the income they received for this land Jacob and Ruth were able to afford to live a little more comfortably. They no longer went without meals and always managed to afford good quality meat or poultry for Shabbat.

However they were not happy. Much time had passed since Joshua had left home and they had begun to give up hope of his returning. One day the couple received word that Joshua was well and working as a silk merchant. Jacob and Ruth now had no doubt that their son must have abandoned the ways of his ancestors and adopted the villainous lifestyle of his new companions. How could Joshua have remained in such a place for so long without succumbing to its influences?

Soon afterwards the couple began to receive letters from their son along with beautiful, silken garments and money. In his letters Joshua described his exciting life but promised to return home soon, once he had earned enough money for his parents to be able to afford their own farm. Jacob and Ruth put the garments aside. They were pleased their son was happy but saddened to think he had surely rejected the life of Torah and mitzvot in which he had been raised. Furthermore it did not seem likely to them that Joshua would really want to return to his elderly parents and their uninteresting life.

All the while Joshua was working daily in a marketplace which was alive with people from around the world buying and selling brightly coloured fabrics, ceramics, carpets from India, China and Persia, perfumes, jewellery, crafted wood furniture and ornaments, musical instruments, clothes, spices and teas. However he was nevertheless indeed becoming increasingly eager to return to his parents and finally, although his friends and colleagues tried to dissuade him, Joshua sold his market stall and began to make preparations for his homeward journey.

One warm, late summer afternoon, Jacob and Ruth were surprised by a knock at their front door. The only person they had been expecting was the farmer, coming to pay his monthly rent for the field and he had already been and gone. Jacob opened the door cautiously, then flung it wide so that his wife could see the visitor. They were both overjoyed to behold their son standing on their doorstep and, with tears of happiness, they welcomed him into the room.

Not only had Joshua’s parents been surprised that he had returned at all but even more so that he was wearing tzitzit on the four corners of one of his garments. This was a definite sign that he had not forsaken the Torah.

The reunited family talked and talked until late into the night. Jacob and Ruth told Joshua they had not expected him to return. He told them however that he had always intended to do so. In addition he had decided soon after arriving at the harbour to leave as soon as he could in order to get away from the dishonest and unpleasant behaviour of other traders with whom he had to work. Joshua told his parents that they had been quite justified in their fears. The stories they had heard about the kinds of characters one might meet among the coastal merchants were quite true. These unscrupulous traders deserved their bad reputation which indeed they had earned through their own improper behaviour. There was a small number of honest and upright merchants, Joshua pointed out, but these were few and far between.

Joshua reassured his parents that despite the idolatrous ways and bad influences that had surrounded him, he had continued to daven regularly and learn Torah at every opportunity. He explained that, as he had promised in his letters, as soon as he had earned enough money for his parents to be able to afford their own farm, he had packed his bags and left.

The couple indeed bought a farm which Joshua managed together with some hired labourers. They also made use of the garments Joshua had sent them, making them into curtains and tablecloths. These remained in the family for generations, as reminders of how Joshua had remained committed to the Torah and mitzvot at all times, even in the most difficult circumstances.

***

In the third paragraph of Shema we learn the mitzvah of tzitzit, special threads to be attached to a garment’s four corners “that you may see it and remember all the commandments of Hashem and perform them and not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray.” (Bamidbar 15: 37-41)

In our story Joshua’s parents were delighted to see that their son still wore tzitzit, for they knew that as long as he did so he would have been constantly reminded of the mitzvot and his obligation to fulfill them. However it would have been easy for Joshua to remove the yoke of Torah from his shoulders in a place where the only religion was greed and he had needed more than a gentle reminder in order to prevent him from straying. It was the intense love of Torah and mitzvot which had been implanted into his heart by his parents which had given Joshua the strength to always stand firm.

We see this strength also in Yaakov Avinu. In the message he sends to Eisav, his brother, Yaakov states “Im Lavan garti” (Bereishit: 32,5) which means “I have lived as a stranger with Lavan.”

In Rashi’s second explanation of the word ‘garti’ he points out: “The gimatria (numerical value) of ‘garti’ is 613, as if to say, ‘I have lived with the wicked Lavan and yet have kept 613 commandments and have not learned from his wicked deeds’.”

Even in the house of Lavan Yaakov did not falter in the slightest in his observance of Hashem’s commandments, keeping them in their every detail.

At the beginning of every Amidah we ask Hashem to remember the great merits of our Avot, forefathers, as if to say, although we may occasionally stray from the right path, we promise always to look to how they lived in order to draw from them the strength which will help us to return.

***

© J. Richards 2004

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