Traveling is often exhilarating, whether to see new places or visit old haunts. On the other hand, coming home is always special, especially if the connection to that home goes deeper than the superficial sigh of comfortability with the surroundings and furnishings. We have a powerful example of that in this week’s Torah reading. Ya’akov Avinu is home again after decades (how many is subject to rabbinic debate) outside of Eretz Yisrael. The behavior he displays is quite surprising, if not shocking.
Before we discuss the home coming ceremony, we’d be remiss not to mention that the ‘official’ ceremony of arrival back in the Holy Land only takes place after being within our normally recognized borders of Eretz Yisrael for a while. He has already gone through the cumbersome reunion with his erstwhile hunter/brother Esav. We had the whole nasty affair in Shechem. It seems that to patriarchal thinking one only enters Eretz Yisrael proper when reaching Beit El. Now Beit El is about 200 km south from Dan (now called Tel Dan), the traditional northern border of Biblical Israel. That’s much more than halfway to the normative southern border town of Be’er Sheva, about 115 km further south.
So, why Beit El? I think that there are two reasons for this, one ancestral, one personal. Beit El is where Avraham Avinu first settled (‘pitched his tent’, Breishit 12:8) upon his initial arrival in the land that ‘I will show you’. When he returned from Egypt, he made a pilgrimage there to re-establish his residence in Israel. On the personal level, this is where Ya’akov had the amazing vision of the SULAM on his departure from home, so many years before. For him this is where Eretz Yisrael takes hold of the entering traveler, not Passport Control at Ben Gurion.
Well, I did cheat a little, because God also told him to go there and build an altar (35:1). But it seems to be Ya’akov who initiates the home coming service, which begins in a most unexpected way: Ya’akov says to his household…Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments (verse 2). Perhaps God only appeared to Ya’akov because he had rid his family and community of the foreign influences.
What actually did the entourage (BEITO) discard? Rashi explains that amongst the wealth and possessions accrued along the way included items that others, that is pagans, might venerate or worship. This sounds like they may have owned items identified with idolatry, but they wouldn’t worship these things themselves. The S’forno understands that the contraband was among the booty acquired from conquest of Shechem.
The Netziv suggests that Ya’akov had never forbidden the ownership of decorations or jewelry which might contain pagan themes. Today, that might mean a crescent or a cross. However, upon entering the holiness of Israel these things must be discarded.
The Ibn Ezra has a fascinating approach. He begins by saying that there was no way the people of Ya’akov’s household would ever worship idols. The verse is obliquely referring to behavior patterns which were accepted outside of Eretz Yisrael, but must be discontinued upon arrival in the Holy Land or, at least, where the sanctity of Israel is first felt. This also explains the next phrase, ‘purify yourselves, and change your clothes.’ What is the difference between Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora? Well, I think that there are two possibilities.
The first is the most famous, and is most forcefully espoused by the Ramban. He believes that in Parshat Toldot when the verse stated, ‘inasmuch as Avraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My command, My decrees and My teachings (26:5),’ it meant, as the Midrash explains, that the AVOT kept the whole Torah before it was given. Yes, that’s true, the Ramban avers, but that’s only true in Eretz Yisrael. Hence, it’s upon entry into the sanctified ambience of Eretz Yisrael that these items must be discarded, and, tragically, Rachel must die. Ya’akov can’t remain married to two sisters in Eretz Yisrael, where he must obey the Torah.
However, the Malbim refuses to take our verse literally. He states, ‘foreign thoughts are the foreign gods.’ We’re not discussing physical objects; we’re talking about thoughts and ideas. It’s impossible to be impervious to cultural trends swirling around your home. It’s always a struggle to remain focused on Torah thoughts and attitudes. But Ya’akov Avinu got up to address his large mobile community and inform them that the spiritual environment has changed. They are going to settle in the Holy Land, and the new locale requires new ways of thinking.
I like this last approach. I know we kept mitzvot similarly in the Diaspora (ignoring the obvious exceptions like two days Yom Tov and Shmitta) before Aliya, as we do here in Eretz Yisrael. That’s fine. I believe the Malbim is saying, ‘When one comes to live in Eretz Yisrael, prepare yourself for a closer relationship with God. Rid yourself of GALUT mentality! Feel the greater KEDUSHA!’
I’m not sure we all feel this way, but our verse is informing us that Ya’akov did. Perhaps, those of us who do visit the Diaspora should have a set of customs to perform when arriving back in the Holy Land. In any case, the Torah’s informing us that Israel’s different. Let’s all figure out how to deal with that, and enhance our experience in Eretz Yisrael, home.