December 20, 1997
Most of us like to take it easy. Difficulties upset us,
alter our plans, hijack our leisure. In truth, of course, the bumpy roads in life are
opportunities to grow spiritually--not just to wreck our tires. It's no big chochmah at
all (and it can sound annoyingly rabbinic, I suppose), but it's true nonetheless, and
worth engraving on our hearts: we can grow from difficulties and ordeals. Even greatly
righteous individuals, tzadikkim, might occasionally need to be reminded of this fact.
Like our patriarch, Ya'akov. The parsha opens: "Vayeishev Ya'akov b'eretz migurei
aviv, b'eretz Cana'an--And Ya'akov settled in the land of his father's sojournings, in the
Land of Canaan." The Hebrew word, "vayeishev," means to sit in a
place--"a natural, quiet, unobstructed staying." (Hirsch, Commentary on the
Torah: I, p. 539) Rashi paraphrases the comment of the
Midrash on this word choice:
"Yaakov desired to dwell (leisheiv) in tranquility, but the troubles of Yosef sprang
upon him. The righteous desire to live in tranquility, [but] Hashem says, 'It's not enough
for the righteous what is prepared for them in the world to come, but they seek to dwell
in tranquility [also] in this world?!'"
Let's understand. Ya'akov hoped to settle down to a more tranquil existence in the land
where his father had only "sojourned," the land he himself was forced to flee
two decades earlier to avoid the murderous designs of his brother, Esav.
Was there ever a man who deserved a break more than Ya'akov? 20 years of servitude to his
deceitful uncle, followed in quick succession by three difficult ordeals depicted in last
week's parsha: the reunion with his brother, Esav (preceded by the all-night struggle with
Esav's guardian angel), the abduction and rape of his daughter, Dinah, by a local prince,
Shechem, and the subsequent massacre of the city by Ya'akov's sons, Shimon and Levi. Give
a Patriarch a breather, for heaven's sake!
But Hashem had different plans for Ya'akov: no rest for the righteous in this world--
immediately, "the troubles of Yosef sprang upon him." We know the story:
Ya'akov's other sons, resentful of his special affection for Yosef, and deeply suspicious
of Yosef's own apparent designs to rule over them (as expressed in the two dreams he tells
them), decide to sell him into slavery. They strip him of his infamous "multi-colored
coat," dip it in the blood of a goat and send it to their father. Assuming that
Yosef, the son whom he considered to be the true guardian of the family's spiritual
heritage (Munk, citing the Zohar, in Call of the Torah: I, 499), has been devoured by a
wild animal, Ya'akov descends into deep mourning.
The question is, Was there some fault in Ya'akov for
wanting some peace in his life? After all, the commentaries explain that what Ya'akov
wanted wasn't Club Med: he yearned for a respite from external worries so he could work
intensely on his internal life, so he could grow--quietly and steadily--in Torah and
service of G-d. In short, he wanted to devote his remaining days on earth to gaining his
olam haba, his portion in the eternal life of the world to come...undistracted by
nisyonos, those Heaven-sent trials of the spirit that marked his life up to this point.
Come on, Hashem, isn't it cruel to deprive the poor tzaddik of his heart's desire?
The obvious answer, succinctly put by Rav Moshe
Sternbuch, shl'ita, a great contemporary sage in Jerusalem, is that righteous people earn
their olam haba specifically by means of those nisyonos, those tribulations; by holding
steady through the tests given to them, by clearing the hurdles that G-d puts in their
way, they achieve spiritual elevation and closeness to their Creator. Though we should
never ask for them outright, the difficulties of life are, as we said at the beginning,
what spur us to grow and to realize our full potential. As Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, zt'l,
puts it, they mitzaref (purify) a person, helping to burn away the dross in our characters
But it's even more than that. Not only do trials and
tribulations have a purpose. To a large degree--one almost shudders to say--they ARE the
purpose! As the classic ethical guide, Mesilas Yesharim (Path of the Just) puts it:
"...the essence of a person's existence in this world is solely the fulfilling of
mitzvos, the serving of G-d and the withstanding of trials (nisyonos)." [my emphasis]
Yaakov felt that what he needed was tranquility; Hashem, Who knows the deepest truths of
His creation, felt otherwise.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, zt'l, tells a beautiful parable to convey how mistaken we are in
our approach to the trials of life. A foreigner in the kingdom happens to save the King
from drowning, and as a reward, he is given empty sacks and put in the treasurehouse of
the King for a whole day...free to fill them to his heart's desire. Unfortunately, he
doesn't know the language of the kingdom, and has no understanding of the worth of the
precious stones in the treasurehouse. It seems to him that this is a cruel punishment, and
he spends the day sleeping rather than toiling with the heavy stones; at the end of the
day, he has no heavy sacks to lug home, and he feels delighted that he was able to trick
his captors and escape the full sting of his imagined tzuros. Later, of course, he finds
out the truth, and sees that he squandered his opportunity to amass a fortune by
diligently applying himself to filling the sacks.
In this world, Rav Dessler comments, we have trouble understanding that Olam Haba is the
true goal of our lives, the palace to which this world is only a corridor. We think that
this world is IT, and we want it to be a constant Club Med. Any bumps in the road: unfair,
a nuisance, a distraction ... INJUSTICE! In the World to Come, however, we will see things
clearly, by the light of Truth: we'll realize that the difficulties and sufferings we
endured here (lo aleinu) were an opportunity to achieve true riches of spiritual strength
and faith...and that we should have faced those difficulties with joy, rather than
squandering the time and cursing the injustice of the King. (Michtav MeEliyahu: I, p. 20)
This lesson is of great relevance to Chanukah, which quickly approaches. Mattisyahu and
his sons could have chosen an easier path for themselves, as did many of their brethren
who left the ways of Torah and embraced Hellenism; Sophocles, Plato, gymnasiums, (the
occasional glatt kosher frat party)--not a bad life at all. Who would have blamed them for
laying down their arms and taking up their lyres?!
But Mattisyahyu and Judah Maccabee, his son, certainly read my parsha sheet...or at least
knew their Midrash: no rest for the righteous in this world. They forsook their peace and
tranquility to fight for the truth of the Torah. They understood that all the tzuros that
Hashem had sent upon them were nisyonos, tests, and they rose to the occasion.
We talk a lot about the miracle of the oil, but it was
the awesome self- sacrifice, the mesiras nefesh, of Mattisyahu and his followers that
caused the miracle in the first place. They pushed themselves to the natural limit...and
only then did Hashem respond with the supernatural: first, a military victory over a far
larger army, and then, a lone jar of oil that burned 8 times more than it was supposed to.
In retrospect, we see that it was because of the tzuros that a great victory was won, and
the miracle of G-d's providence revealed.
The Midrash itself compares the Jewish people to an olive: just as it must be crushed to
yield its oil and give light, we, too, must be "crushed" sometimes--i.e. put to
the test --to bring out our best light. May we be worthy to burn bright and pure through
all life's ups and downs.
Good Shabbos and Happy
Insights Into Exodus
Insights Into Leviticus
Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail
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