Living in the state of Florida, initial conversations with new acquaintances usually had two questions asked early on. The first question was: Where are you from? The second question was: Where do you live? Most of us had come from somewhere else. Most of us were immigrants to the Sunshine State. This meant that our lives and the things that brought meaning to our lives were someplace else. According to the traditional laws of the interstate highway system, our home was somewhere Northeast if you lived on the Eastern side of Florida along I-95, or home was the Midwest if you came to Florida via I-75. Regardless from whence you came, each of us brought our own question, whether we would be able to make our home in this new land. Some made the transition; some maintained a dual identity and some but a ger toshav– a resident alien.
Jacob made his life in Egypt according to Parsha Vayechi. For 17 years he lived with his extended family in this new land opened to them by his son Joseph. But when it came time to die, Jacob made Joseph promise that he would bury Jacob in his homeland. And so Joseph brought his father Jacob back to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. All of those years living in Egypt as someone of privilege, whose son was so prominent, but Jacob considered his home elsewhere and never fully accepted a place in Egyptian society and culture.
What does it mean to maintain your identity? The Hebrews remained separate and distinct from the Egyptians. In the next parsha we learn that a new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph and feared these strangers in the midst of Egypt, leading to 400 years of slavery and ultimately an Exodus to return home.
We struggle as we attempt to preserve our families and our values. This is especially true given our mobility today. The American story has been an active tension between the desire to assimilate into American culture and the desire to maintain a distinct Jewish identity. How do we balance these two, which often are in conflict with each other? How do we live out our days fulfilled? What roles do our families play in this process of making a home? What do we pass on to our children as the legacy, their true inheritance?
“Home is where the heart is” goes the adage. But if we do not make our homes wherever we are, isn’t life there incomplete? Where and how do we make our home? The questions raised by Parsha Vayechi remain important. They are as relevant to the person moving to Florida as they were to the person sojourning in Egypt, or to someone moving to a new residence to accommodate to a new set of personal needs as they move into a new phase of life.