The chapters of Breishit that precede Parshat Vayeshev detail Yaakov’s journey from Canaan to Haran and back again, over a period of twenty years. During that time, Yaakov married, had many children, and became powerful and prosperous, but also endured many difficult trials. These trials include fleeing home to escape Esav’s death threat; working for the mendacious rogue Lavan and then fleeing from him; the terrifying reunion with Esau and his army; the rape of his daughter Dina by Shechem; the death of his beloved Rachel; and more. One cannot help but feel tremendous sympathy for Yaakov, as well as great admiration. For as Rav Eliyahu Kitov asserts in his commentary on Parshat Vayeshev, Yakov was upright (tam) and complete (shalem) in his faithfulness to G-d at birth, and this faithfulness was not shaken in the slightest, even as he withstood these difficult ordeals.
The first two pesukim of Parshat Vayeshev read as follows:
א וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב, בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו–בְּאֶרֶץ, כְּנָעַן. ב אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב, יוֹסֵף בֶּן-שְׁבַע-עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת-אֶחָיו בַּצֹּאן… (בראשית פרק לז)
1 And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.2 These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren …
(Breishit, Chap. 27)
In his commentary on these verses, Rashi cites the following midrash:
וישב. ביקש יעקב לישב בשלוה, קפץ עליו רוגזו של יוסף. צדיקים מבקשים לישב בשלוה אומר הקדוש ברוך הוא לא דיין לצדיקים מה שמתוקן להם לעולם הבא, אלא שמבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה:
Jacob sought to dwell in tranquility, but then the ordeal of Joseph sprung upon him. The righteous seek to dwell in tranquility, but the Holy One Blessed be He said, “The righteous do not consider that which is prepared for them in the World to Come to be enough for them, but, they seek to dwell in tranquility in this world as well?” (based upon Breishit Rabbah 84:6)
The midrash understands the word וישב, vayeishev, in this pasuk to mean “settling in tranquility” (in line with its meaning in many other places in Tanach; see Devarim 11:31, Kings I 5:8 and Haggai 1:4). The midrash is therefore attempting to reconcile the contrast between verse 1, which states that Yaakov settled peacefully (וישב)in the Land of Canaan, to verse 2, which begins the story of Yoseph and his brothers, a story characterized as the converse of settlement and tranquility (i.e. family strife and the descent to Egypt). The midrash therefore concludes that Yaakov did not actually dwell in tranquility, but rather, that he sought to dwell in tranquility. It is this longing for tranquility that the midrash criticizes. What was wrong with Yaakov’s request?
This question is further heightened when one considers G-d’s assurance that if we follow His commands, we will be rewarded with tranquility in our land. In Vayikra Chapter 26, we read:
3 If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them; 4 then I will give your rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. … and ye shall eat your bread until ye have enough, and dwell in your land safely. 6 And I will give peace in the land…
Why did G-d find fault with Yaakov’s request such that he brought upon Yaakov a new challenge, the Yosef ordeal? Why does G-d consider a tzaddik’s desire for tranquility in this world asking too much, as the tzaddik has already merited tranquility in the world to come?
Among the many explanations of the midrash offered by commentators throughout the ages, all would agree that Yaakov was a tzadik of the highest order, and the tranquility he sought was certainly not a life of material comfort and wealth. Rather, Yaakov’s motives were entirely spiritual. Let us look at three explanations of Yaakov’s request for tranquility, and the difficulty inherent in each request.
The Taam VaDaat suggests that after undergoing so many nisyonot (hardships) throughout his life, Yaakov desired complete reprieve from them, in order to focus upon his own spiritual growth and earn his portion in the World to Come. Having endured many difficult trials, Yaakov was ready to return to the secure and untroubled setting of the “kollel”, where he could delve into his learning and his connection to Hashem.
The problem with Yaakov’s request for complete tranquility from nisyonot reflected a misunderstanding of the nature of this world. Olam HaZeh (this world) is full of trials and challenges, and it is through undergoing these trials that we grow spiritually. In the Mesillat Yesharim, the Ramcha”l explains:
A person was not created for his position in this world, but rather for his position in the world to come. However, through his position in this world he acquires his position in the world to come…as they have stated “this world resembles a corridor (Pirkei Avot 4:16)”.
The choices we make as we grapple with the highs and lows, joys and pains, difficult hardships and mundane demands of this world, are the means through which we merit our portion in the World to Come. Nisyonot are particularly distinctive to the tzadikim, who earn all their reward in the world to come by withstanding difficult trials in this world. Yaakov did not realize that freedom from nisyonot was in impossibility in this world. Complete tranquility is to be found only in the world to come. Therefore, G-d sprung upon Yaakov the nisayon of Yoseph, in order to rectify Yaakov’s misperception.
The Limudei Nisan offers that Yaakov spent his entire life and all of his energy protecting himself from Esav. Once he finally reconciled with Esav, Yaakov assumed he was now free to focus exclusively upon his own spiritual needs. Expanding this idea, Rav Haim Sabato offers that Yaakov assumed he had fulfilled his mission in this world, having overcome the evil Lavan, having reconciled with Esav, and having fought the angel and winning such that G-d changed his name to Yisrael. Yaakov was thus requesting to go into “retirement”, in order to work on his own spiritual development in peace.
The problem with this request for tranquility was that while Yaakov may have completed his mission vis-à-vis external enemies, he neglected to recognize that he still needed to confront the enemy from within, that is, to repair the relationships within his own family. The subsequent chapters of Breishit expose the discord that existed amongst Yaakov’s children. G-d sprung the ordeal of Yoseph upon Yaakov, to teach Yaakov that as long as his children were not unified, the threat of galut stood “waiting at the door”.
The MeAyn Bet HaShoeva maintains that Yaakov was asking for a life of tranquility in order to shift his focus. As the descendent of Avraham and Yitzchak, Yaakov had an obligation to spread knowledge of G-d throughout the world. Indeed, Yaakov had already engaged in this work, building two altars to G-d during his return journey toCanaan. Yet, once he reached his father’s home, Yaakov desired relief from the responsibility of doing kiruv with the masses in order to focus his attention solely upon his own family’s Jewish education and spiritual growth. In order to ensure that Yaakov continued his work of converting the masses to monotheism, G-d sprung the ordeal with Yoseph upon Yaakov. This ordeal would ultimately lead to extensive revelation of G-d in the world, through Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt, Israel’s descent to Egypt, the Exodus, and the giving of the Torah.
Our Torah is eternal, and the experiences and actions of our forefathers serve as lessons for all of us. While Yaakov Avinu was on a much higher spiritual level than we can ever conceive, his yearning for tranquility is something many of us can relate to. How many of us have wanted to focus upon our own growth and needs, to the exclusion of the needs of others? How many of us have become so involved in our work outside the home that we have neglected to attend to the needs of our own family members? How many of us have shied away from community involvement because are afraid it will take more effort then we are willing to expend? How many of us have secretly harbored the wish for a challenge-free life so that we could do whatever we wished?
This midrash can help us gain the proper perspective on the purpose of our lives in this world. Western culture sends the message that our goal should be a self-focused, care-free existence. Hotels are named “Eden”, islands are called “Paradise”, and we are meant to believe that heaven exists here on Earth. When we internalize these values, we view challenges as hindrances to be avoided, and we stunt our personal growth. Judaism believes that our mission in this world is to spread the word of G-d, and challenges are to be seen not as obstacles, but as opportunities. While we are certainly meant to enjoy the gifts G-d has granted us in this world, and to pray to G-d that He spare us difficult trials and bring us peace, we must recognize that if G-d has presented us with a difficult situation, He believes we have the resources to grapple with it and to grow from it.
In addition, life demands our investment in the needs of our family, our community, and our own personal growth. Whichever explanation of the midrash one prefers, the underlying message is clear: We are never completely absolved of our responsibilities to any of them. Moreover, we must strive to find the proper balance between them. May G-d grant us the capacity to view our nisyonot as learning opportunities, and the clarity and strength to meet our responsibilities to our families, our communities, ourselves and to the Almighty.