Vayeshev: Serenity In This World?

וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ

“And Ya’akov settled in the land”.

Rashi comments:

ועוד נדרש בו וישב ביקש יעקב לישב בשלוה, קפץ עליו רוגזו של יוסף. צדיקים מבקשים לישב בשלוה אומר הקב”ה לא דיין לצדיקים מה שמתוקן להם לעולם הבא, אלא שמבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה:

It is further expounded upon: “And (Ya’akov) settled”.  Ya’akov sought to dwell in tranquility, and then the ordeal of Yosef sprung upon him. The righteous seek to dwell in tranquility:  said the Holy One, blessed be, “What is prepared for the righteous in the world to come is not sufficient for them, that they seek to dwell in tranquility in this world?”

Ya’akov has just survived intense and frightening conflicts with Lavan and then with Esav, and now wishes to settle in Canaan in tranquility. Instead he is met with the apparent death of his beloved son Yosef, who his other sons lead him to believe was torn apart and killed by a wild animal. According to Rashi elsewhere (see 37:35) Ya’akov subconsciously recognizes that he is not being told the truth and so cannot fully let go of Yosef and complete his grieving. As a consequence his spirit remains greatly unsettled and his desire for tranquility is painfully unfulfilled.

Rashi’s comment on our verse, which is based on Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 84:6, echoes the Rabbinic teaching that tzaddikim burn off all of the effects of their sins in this world so that they can enjoy the unalloyed bliss of the Divine presence in the world to come, whereas rasha’im (the wicked) are rewarded here with whatever they deserve, since after death they’re going to get bupkes (T. Bavli Rosh Hashanah). This in turn echoes an older teaching found in the Writings (Ketuvim) of the Tanakh that only the tzaddik who understands the ways of God and acts virtuously in a sense “builds” or “gains” an eternal soul and continues to exist after death (see Ethan Dor-Shav,  Job’s Path to Enlightenment

In any case the message is the same: for the spiritual person this is the world of work not of tranquility. As difficult as this may be at times this is not a cause for sorrow, as R’ Ya’akov says: “A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the World to Come. And a single moment of bliss in the World to Come is greater than all of the present world (Pirke Avot).” The essence of the Jewish mission is to turn darkness to light, to lift up fallen sparks, to make a dwelling for the most high in the lowest depths, to repair the world. This is a burden, yes, but traditional Jewish teachings claim that there is in fact nothing better than this.

Is it wrong, then, to desire tranquility in this world? Rashi’s comment, on the surface, seems to imply that it is. R’ Menachem Mendel Shneerson, zt”l, argues that Rashi’s comment does not mean this (Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXX, pp. 176-179, as quoted by Sholom B. Wineberg in The Chassidic Dimension). He writes that the tranquility that a person should pursue is not the tranquility of rest from labour, but the tranquility of inner peace which allows for truly fruitful labour. It was this tranquility that Ya’akov desired, and this tranquility which was denied him for the years that Yosef was missing, in which his heart found no peace. In the final 17 years of his life after his reunion with Yosef Ya’akov did in fact dwell in utter peace.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe argues:  “when G-d says: “Does it not suffice that the World to Come is established for the righteous,” it does not mean that their request is improper. The implication is rather that serving G-d in a state of utter peace is similar to the reward that awaits the righteous in the World to Come (Ibid).”

In other words Ya’akov does not desire to settle into a state of worldly peace where he can divide his time between shloffing and fressing. Ya’akov wished to serve God in a state of peace. The loss of his Yosef filled him with grief and confusion. The Rebbe therefore explains that this grief and confusion was in fact neccessary to refine Ya’akov’s soul so that he would be worthy of experiencing the peace of the world to come in this world, which ultimately he did. The trial of Yosef’s apparent death, although horrible, was only meant to serve this purpose as far as the curriculum of Ya’akov’s neshama.

There is a lot to learn from this from a mussar perspective: 1) This world, olam ha-zeh, is the world of action and work. Although of course we need to do what’s neccessary to maintain our mental and physical health, our desire here should not be for resting and consuming (the desires of the nefesh behaima, the animal soul) but for productive spiritual work for the sake of ourselves and others;  2) We should not desire worldly tranquility; but spiritual tranquilty; and 3) when there are insurmountable obstacles to even our spiritual tranquility we should see this as a time of refinement of our neshama and carry on, confident that if we turn our tsuris to the benefit of our neshama we will ultimately warrant the peace of the world to come in this world.

Author: Matthew Zachary Gindin

Freelance journalist and teacher. I write regularly for the Forward, All That In Interesting, and the Jewish Independent, and have been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Elephant Journal, and elsewhere.

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