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It's a Struggle

By: Mrs. Rachel Leshaw

Parshat Vayeshev opens with the pasuk telling us that Yaakov settled in the land of his fathers, and the parshah continues to tell the story of the selling of Yosef. Rashi quotes a midrash in Bereishit Rabbah which states that the troubles with Yosef came about because Yaakov had gotten too settled, he wanted to live in peace and quiet. This midrash is quite difficult; after many years of living with his troublesome father-in-law Lavan, and struggling to free himself from his threatening brother Esav, it seems like Yaakov deserves some rest. How could it be that he is punished for wanting to enjoy life with his wives and children?

Throughout the stories of Yaakov’s we see a repeating theme of tranquility versus struggle. In Parshat Vayetzei, chapter 30, after Yosef is born, Yaakov tells his wives that it is time to return to the land of Israel. The story continues with Yaakov and Lavan negotiating over Yaakov’s salary, which turns into a long episode involving spotted and speckled sheep. Once that is over, at the beginning of chapter 31, God speaks to Yaakov and tells him that he has to go home. It seems strange that God would need to specifically command Yaakov to do something which he has already declared his intention of doing. What happened that required God to remind Yaakov of his plans?

A possible answer can be found back at the end of chapter 30. After Yaakov finally reached an agreement with Lavan about his payment in sheep, the pasuk tells us that Yaakov has done very well financially, and he owns many animals and servants. Although Yaakov had originally intended to go back to Eretz Yisrael as soon as he settled accounts with Lavan, he became too comfortable in Charan. Suddenly he had no real impetus to go back to his own homeland, because he was so successful where he was. This is why it was necessary for God to remind him of his desire to return home. God needed to push Yaakov, to tell him that there is more to life than comfort and tranquility. Yaakov has a destiny to fulfill, and that destiny requires him to make the difficult journey back to the home he left many years before.

While on that journey, Yaakov is once again reminded of the importance of struggle. The night before he meets his brother Esav, Yaakov has a strange encounter with a man who fights him throughout the night. In the morning, Yaakov asks for a bracha. The man tells him that no longer will he be known as Yaakov, but rather as Yisrael, because he has struggled with man and God and prevailed (Bereishit 32:29). The man tells Yaakov that it is his destiny to be Yisrael, a man who struggles. Yisrael is the name of the nation which springs from Yaakov’s descendants, a nation of people who struggle and grow in their relationship with God.

With these stories in mind we can better understand why the midrash thought Yaakov did something wrong at the beginning of our parshah. When it says that Yaakov settled in the land, it means that he chose to use his Yaakov identity, which tended towards tranquility, rather than Yisrael, which emphasized the struggle. Yaakov seemed to be saying that he had reached home and didn’t want to take on the role of Yisrael, which required continual striving. (The issue of when Yaakov/Yisrael is used is much more complex than this one case, and no one explanation can account for all the variation. In order to explain the midrash we are focusing only on this one instance.)

We can now explain that the midrash was not criticizing Yaakov for wanting to live in peace, but for shirking his destiny. He was not meant to sit and watch his children grow up, but rather to work to raise them to be Bnei Yisrael. But the pasuk seems to be saying that this is not the choice he made. In fact, we see that Yaakov’s passivity with regards to the relationships among his sons is one of the factors which allow for the brothers to sell Yosef. He didn’t put himself in the role of Yisrael, which would allow him to teach the value of struggling with God to his children.

In his book Jewish Values in a Changing World, Rav Yehuda Amital writes about the value of tension and struggle in Judaism. He quotes the Sefat Emet (Vayeshev 5636) who says that God wants every Jew to strive towards perfection in his service of God. The implication seems to be that in our parshah Yaakov had ceased to work on his relationship with God, had decided that he had reached the peak of his spiritual achievement.  According to Rav Amital, people should not aspire for tranquility, but rather to grow and reach higher. Yaakov’s next step was to pass on his tradition to his children, to teach them to struggle with God, but the midrash implies that he did not accept that responsibility.

It is in human nature to prefer relaxation to hard work, but the midrash on this week’s parshah teaches us about a balance we need to find. We need to make sure that we’re not becoming complacent; we need to strive, to grow. We need to find the areas in our lives where we have become just a bit too comfortable, and where we need to shake things up. If we do, we may be surprised what we find ourselves capable of.

May we have a peaceful Shabbat, one where Am Yisrael’s only struggles are in our desire to grow closer to God.

Shabbat shalom.




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