Returning to the land of Israel after twenty years abroad, our forefather Jacob stayed for a while in the city of Shechem (today’s Nablus). In this week’s Torah portion, this is described with the phrase “vayichan es penei ha’ir” — “he encamped in front of (lit., at the face of) the city” (Gen. 33:18).
Our Sages, though, saw another meaning in this phrase. Vayichan (“he encamped” — thanks to Naftali for suggesting that I add this clarification) can also be related to the word chein, favor, and so they explain (Talmud, Shabbos 33b) that Jacob made the city’s conditions (its “face” to the outside world) more favorable. (Opinions vary as to what he contributed: he set up a system of coinage to facilitate trade, or markets in which people could buy food cheaply, or bathhouses.)
From this we learn, states the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 79:6), that a person owes thanks to a place from which they have benefited. In this case, even though Jacob was planning to stay in Shechem only temporarily — his destination was Hebron, where his parents lived and where his grandparents were buried — he still took the time to make Shechem a better place, financially and socially, for its citizens.
How indeed did Jacob come to be so public-spirited? We can get an idea from the previous verse and a half (Gen. 33:17-18a):
“Jacob traveled to Sukkos, and built himself a house, while for his cattle he made booths (Heb., sukkos); therefore the place was called Sukkos. Then Jacob arrived whole in the city of Shechem…”
Jacob commemorated the booths rather than the house in naming the place, because it’s all too easy to fall into the mindset that the human and the animal, the spiritual and the material, are on the same level and deserve the same amenities. He wanted to memorialize, for himself and his descendants, that what makes us human — our spiritual self — requires nothing less than a permanent “house,” a major investment of one’s resources; while for our possessions, and for the elements of ourselves that we share with the lower orders, a second-class status of “booths” is good enough.
In turn, this ability to keep his priorities straight made it possible for Jacob to remain the consummate Torah scholar — to arrive “whole” (in his Torah knowledge, as Rashi here explains) at Shechem — and then to be civic-minded and express, in a practical way, his thanks to his hosts.
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We American Jews also owe a profound debt of gratitude to our country for the freedoms we enjoy here as Jews and as citizens. Like our ancestor Jacob, we should contribute our talents to the improvement of the American body politic, each in his or her own way (and indeed, the most cursory glance at the history of the United States shows how much Jews have done so over the generations). True that America is only a way-station on our journey to our ultimate destination; like Jacob, we look forward to our reunion with our Father (in Heaven) and to the resumption of our intimate relationship with Him (the Hebrew name for Hebron, Chevron, is related to chibbur, attachment) with the coming of Moshiach. Nevertheless, so long as we are here, we should be grateful for her hospitality to us — for being a medinah shel chessed (government of kindness), as great Torah leaders have dubbed America (and of course our ultimate thanks should go to G-d, for making all of this possible and for placing us here and not in some other country).
Far from the idea, though, that this requires us to abandon or dilute our dedication to our Torah and our Jewishness — that we need to join the “melting pot” and assimilate entirely or partially into American society; that Judaism is a relic of the “old country” or of medieval times — we can take a lesson from Jacob that, on the contrary, it’s our Torah and its ideals that inform our sense of civic virtue and thankfulness for the bounty that America provides for us (and for much of the rest of the world too), and that should inspire us to give our all to help her be “a more perfect union” for ourselves and our fellow citizens.