Out Into The World
The message of this week's Torah portion is immediately evident from its name -- vayetzei, "and he went out." Jacob goes out to the world. He does not choose to go out into the world. His brother, Esav, is chasing him in order to kill him, and Jacob has no choice but to leave.
I find that in the Jewish world, there are two opposing attitudes. Perhaps one approach is born as a reaction to the other. But neither is the ideal Jewish approach.
There is the approach that says a Jew must lock himself in a ghetto and never venture forth -- no matter what the circumstance -- lest he become sullied by the outside world. And then there is the opposing view that says a Jew must interact with the outside world -- no matter what the circumstance -- lest he become insular and unworldly.
As with all extremes, each of these approaches is deeply flawed. True Judaism can be found as a balance somewhere between the two.
An environment devoid of focus on Godliness is not something a Jew should wish to engage by choice. It is distracting and confusing. However, there are times and places that he must do so. To escape danger, as in Jacob's circumstance; to make a living; to defend values that are held dear, or, as in our generation, to reach out and educate. Sometimes we Jews must go out into the world. And we should do so reluctantly, as did Jacob. But equally we should do so wholeheartedly -- as did Jacob.
In Judaism, there is nothing wrong with being insular -- as long as you do not shirk responsibility by doing so and as long as, like Jacob, you are ready to move into the world at a moment's notice. Equally, there is nothing wrong with engaging in the world -- as long as it does not become an end unto itself, that blurs the distinction between what is valuable and what is not.
Extremes are always more comfortable, and that's why they attract us. But for a Jew, extremes are unproductive. Only the struggle for balance paves the road to meaningful existence.