Jacob and Naomi: People Over Place (More Midrash, Ep. 7)

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The Midrash

Bereishit Rabbah 68:6

“Jacob departed” (Genesis 28:10). Did no one depart from there other than he?! Why, many donkey-drivers departed, and many camel-drivers departed, and yet you say, “Jacob departed.”

Rabbi Azarya said in the name of Rabbi Yehudah bar Simone: When a righteous person is in a city, she is its splendor (ziv) and she it is glory (hadar). When she leaves from there, its splendor has departed and its glory has departed.

And similar to our verse: “Naomi departed from the place where she had been” (Ruth 1:7). “She departed.” Did no one depart from that place other than she? Why, many donkey-drivers departed, and many camel-drivers departed, and it states, “She left.”

Rabbi Azarya said in the name of Rabbi Yehudah bar Simone, and Rabbi Chanin said in the name of Rabbi Shmuel bar Rabbi Yitzchak: When a righteous person is in a city, she is its splendor (ziv) and she it is glory (hadar). When she leaves from there, its splendor has departed and its glory has departed.

It is satisfactory there [in the case of Naomi], since there was only that righteous woman alone there. However, here [in the case of Jacob], Isaac and Rebecca were there! Rabbi Azaryah said in the name of Rabbi Simone: The merit of one righteous person is not comparable to the merit of two righteous persons.

Understanding the Midrash

Parshat Vayeitzei begins with Jacob departing from his home in Beersheva, and heading towards Charan. Contextually, everything makes sense. Prior to his exit, his brother Esau was threatening his life, so Jacob leaves.

Our midrash, however, manages to see something unusual in the phrase “Jacob departed”. It suggests that, even though the story is about Jacob, it is odd that all of the other people who must have also been leaving at the same time are not mentioned by the Torah. Now of course this is ridiculous. When I am leaving work and texting my fiance to let her know I’m on the way home, I just say, “I’m heading home.” I don’t feel a need to say, “Hi Laura, I’m heading home now, and so are these coworkers, and a few congregants, as well.” Yes, we are all leaving around the same time, but their departure isn’t really that relevant to my particular story. So too, the Torah is interested in Jacob’s story, and not at all in donkey-drivers and camel-drivers. It would have been highly unusual for them to be mentioned, not for them to be omitted!

Nevertheless, the midrash has a point to make and will not be dissuaded by literary common sense. Rabbi Yehuda bar Simone teaches that when a righteous person is present in a place, she or he constitutes its splendor and glory. When the righteous person leaves, she takes along with her that splendor and glory. In other words, an average person taking leave is not remarkable. But a righteous person leaving deserves specific mention – and that is why it says “Jacob [of all people] departed.” His departure diminished the home he left.

Having established this principle that the departure of a righteous person takes a toll on his former residence, the midrash finds another similar case. In the book of Ruth, the story begins with Naomi departing from Moav, where she had moved with her family, back to her original home of Beit-lechem. The midrash claims that she too, as a righteous person, took her home’s splendor and glory along with her when she left.

But there is a difference between the situation of Naomi and the situation of Jacob. The midrash assumes that Naomi was the only righteous person in her town, such that when she left, she took with her all its splendor and glory. But when Jacob leaves, there are clearly still his righteous parents who presumably also gift Beersheva with splendor and glory. How could it be said that when he leaves, he takes it all with him?! The answer, according to the midrash, is that you can’t compare one with two (or three). I interpret this to mean that the additional splendor and glory from more righteous people is exponential, not a simple multiple. In other words, the loss of one person, even when there are still righteous people remaining, diminishes the remaining splendor and glory in a dramatic and impactful way.

What are we supposed to make of this?

The underlying value in this midrash is that people matter over place. What contributes to the worth of any particular location ultimately comes down to who resides there, who interacts there, who offers of their gifts and talents, who elevates the community with moral insight and ethical practice.

What does the midrash mean by talking about ziv, splendor, and hadar, glory? The Yefeh Toar, a medieval interpreter of the midrash, suggests that ziv, splendor refers to the radiance of faces that are steeped in Torah learning. In other words, splendor points to our capacity for sacred learning and teaching. Hadar, glory, refers to the ability to help those around us treat each other with mutual respect. So the holiness of a community rises from the quality of individuals and the relationships they build amongst each other. I want to move away from imagining that some people are righteous and some people are not. Most people have righteous qualities – the capacity to offer our gifts and to bring about peace among those around us. When we fully make ourselves present in a place, we have the ability to contribute to something greater than ourselves.

For another perspective on what constitutes a righteous person, and the splendor and glory of their community, I turn to Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.” He writes about the founder of Zappos, Tony Hsieh (pronounced Shay), and his vision of group culture. Hsieh believes in collisions. “Collisions – defined as serendipitous personal encounters – are, he believes, the lifeblood of any organization, the key driver of creativity, community, and cohesion” (p. 66). “‘It’s kind of impossible to explain,’ says Lisa Shufro, a Downtown Project staffer. ‘You connect with all these people, and you don’t feel it in your head, you feel it in your stomach. It’s a feeling of possibility, and he creates it wherever he goes” (p. 67). That’s a Naomi. That’s a Jacob. The people who ignite not just those they are relating with directly, but who transform a community culture such that every interaction has holy possibility. The loss of such a person can be tremendous. But the midrash subtly gives us hope – in both the story of Jacob and the story of Naomi, the two characters eventually return home. The loss is not permanent. It’s only a way to recognize and appreciate the power of transformative people, when you happen to be in the same space as them. Who ignites the cultures of your communities? Perhaps send them a note of thank you for being present.