And Yaakov sat…
–Braishis (Genesis) 37:1
Rashi cites the Sages who say that Yaakov wanted to live in peace and serenity. But this was not to be, and the troubles of his son Yosef began. The Almighty said, “Is it not sufficient for the righteous that they receive their reward in the world to come? Why do they need to live in serenity in this world?”
The question arises: why is it wrong to want to live in serenity? Yaakov desired serenity not so that he could devote his time to personal pleasures, but rather to be able to engage in spiritual pursuits.
-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Keep your focus on growth, not serenity,” p.102
Commentary on Torah Portion Vayeishev
Growth Through Torah
When I’m stressed, when things aren’t working out right, when relationships are strained, more than anything, I want peace and serenity. I want to relax. I sometimes want everyone just to get along, and at other times, I just want to be alone to follow both personal and spiritual pursuits without interruption and distraction.
So midrash aside, I can very much empathize with Jacob’s desire for peace and serenity.
But I think Rashi, as interpreted by Rabbi Pliskin, has a point. We weren’t put here by God to seek peace and serenity, we were put here to serve Him. Serving God is rarely very peaceful. Just look at lives such as Abraham’s, Jacob’s, Joseph’s, Moshe’s, David’s, Jeremiah’s, and of course, our Master Yeshua’s (Jesus’) life. Also consider the apostles, particularly Paul. Was their service in spreading the good news of the Moshiach to the Jews and to the nations particularly peaceful? Most of the time, it was ultimately fatal in a violent and premature sense.
May God not wish me to serve him in such a manner for I know my faith and trust pale in comparison to even the least of the Biblical tzaddikim (righteous ones or “saints”).
But R. Pliskin said “growth, not serenity,” which I take to mean that rather than seeking peace, we should be seeking to experience our lives as the platform upon which we strive to grow spiritually, to grow closer to God.
This, said Rav Yeruchem, is an attitude we should all internalize. Every occurrence in this world can make you a better person. When you have this awareness your attitude towards everything that happens to you in life will be very positive. Before, during, and after every incident that occurs reflect on your behavior and reactions. Ask yourself, “What type of person am I after this happened? How did I do on this test? Did I pass it in an elevated manner?” (Daas Torah: Barishis, pp.222-3)
This means that regardless of our circumstances, good or bad, we should approach the experience in the same manner, as a test or a “training session” designed to assist us in becoming more spiritually elevated. Of course, to be in a position to look at everything from ecstasy to agony in this way probably requires that we be in a fairly elevated state already. I don’t think I’m there yet, but maybe being aware that it’s possible will give me something to shoot for.
But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
–Philippians 4:10-13 (NASB)
If the ancient and modern Rabbinic sages can apply this principle to Jacob, I think it’s reasonable to apply it to Paul as well. This gives it a more universal usage which means it comes right back to my front door, so to speak. The goal of trust and faith in God and living a holy life then, is not to find peace in our circumstances, but regardless of what is happening to us, to find peace in God as Paul did.
“And Yosef was brought down to Egypt.”
–Braishis (Genesis) 39:1
Anyone viewing the scene of Yosef being brought down to Egypt as a slave would have considered it a major tragedy. His brothers sold him into slavery and he was being taken far away from his father and his homeland. But the reality was that this was the first step towards his being appointed the second in command of Egypt. He would eventually be in charge of the national economy of Egypt and would be the mastermind behind the complex program to prepare for the years of famine during the years of plenty.
“Realize that you can never tell how events will actually turn out in the end,” p.110
Being limited, temporal beings, our major focus is what is happening to us right now or what has just recently occurred. If it’s something unpleasant, then we tend to believe that it is also undesirable. Joseph probably felt that way when he was being sold into Potipher’s household and certainly would have that experience upon being sent to prison.
If only you would think of me with yourself when he benefits you, and you will do me a kindness, if you please, and mention me to Pharaoh, then you would get me out of this building. For indeed I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing for them to have put me in the pit.
–Genesis 40:14-15 (Stone Edition Chumash)
After two years in prison, Joseph’s words give us no indication that he was viewing his continued incarceration as anything but a miscarriage of justice, and an unfair and unpleasant circumstance. He had not “learned to be content in whatever circumstances” he found himself in. With great respect to the Rabbis, I don’t think midrash sufficiently describes Joseph’s personality or spirituality. While he did indeed have great faith and trust in God, he really wanted to get out of prison and he was willing to ask for help from a potentially influential person, a bit of quid pro quo, as it were.
Perhaps Joseph realized what God had done in retrospect, but it doesn’t seem that he realized it when he was still locked up. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Joseph acted with utmost integrity and morality, both as a slave and as a prisoner. If he had given up hope and surrendered to despair, engaging in the baser behaviors of a prison inmate, then he certainly would not have been in position to take the next step in God’s plan.
The take away from this is that regardless of circumstances, even if you (or I) can’t possibly see how they can be beneficial at the time they’re happening, we must continue to behave (or start behaving) in a moral and upright manner for who knows how you can affect what happens next by what you decide to do now? And if you (or I) fail in this, there’s still time to repent, but that time is not limitless:
He took up a parable and said: A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came to seek fruit from it, but he did not find any. He said to the vinedresser, “Look, for three years I have come to seek fruit in the fig tree, but I have not found any. Cut it down; why should it waste the ground?” He answered and said to him, “My master, leave it alone for another year, until I have dug around it and given it some manure. Perhaps it will produce fruit. If it does not produce, then cut it down the following year.”
–Luke 13:6-9 (Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels)