Exile is necessary part of life’s journey


“Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran” (Genesis 28:10). So begins this week’s Torah Portion. Whether he had hit the road to find a wife or to flee from his furious birthright and blessing bereft brother Esau — or both — homebody Jacob departed and undertook a journey which would change him, his life, and history. Like his grandparents Sarah and Abraham, his mother Rebekah, his son Joseph, and countless Hebrews, Israelites and Jews who came after him, Jacob migrated and thereby was transformed.

The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 68:19) tells us that Rabbi Joshua, son of Levi, interpreted these events in Jacob’s life in terms of the Exile which would befall his descendants. At the tender age of twelve, my paternal grandfather was sent by his family whose baking business back in Bucharest held no place for him, exiled to live with relatives in the New World, in Wood River, Illinois. After toiling for a while in a nearby steel mill, Grandpa Joe ran off to join the U.S. Navy when he was just sixteen. He lied about his age in order to enlist. He saw the world on two tours of duty, then settled in St. Louis, married, and, with Grandma Rose, raised a family. Five years before his untimely death in his fifty-first year, I was born — his first grandchild.

I have only dim recollections of Grandpa Joe. I do know that I wouldn’t exist if his life had followed another, different course. I also am aware that neither you nor I would care about lessons from the Torah without a tradition that stems from the legendary journeys of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, Abraham and Sarah, Rebekah, Joseph, and the exiles of all the rest.

One of the outstanding Jewish troubadours of our time, Doug Cotler, sings of his own grandparents,

Years ago they crossed the sea,

and they made a life that’s come to me.

I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me.

As the Torah reminds us this week — and so very often — we, you and I, stand squarely on the shoulders of many, many, very many who came before us.

“Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran.” Thank you, Father Jacob. And thank you, Grandpa Joe; thank all of you who made the migrations and endured the exiles, and on whose shoulders my being rests. Thank you.

Rabbi Lane Steinger, of Midwest Council, Union For Reform Judaism, is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.