Vayeishev: The Antidote To Pain



Why is Life So Painful, and What Can We Do About It?

This week’s Torah reading tells us that, at last, Jacob has settled in the land of his father, and all he wants to do is to tend his flocks and dwell there in peace. By this time, Jacob has been through a lot, and he seems entitled to a rest.

But does he get it? No.

The obvious question here is: What was wrong with Jacob’s request to live in peace? Why did he not deserve some rest after all his trials and tribulations? And to apply that question to our own lives and times: Do we not have the right to retire in peace at some point, after struggling for years to earn a living, being virtuous and abiding by God’s laws?

Looking around, the answer to us, like to Jacob, seems to be: No. Life, as we know it, is full of challenge and pain. Indeed, there is no life without pain. That’s how it is. But why does it have to be so?

This sermon explores the purpose of existence, the meaning of pain in the world, and the antidote to it. It explains that Jacob was not entitled to rest, to be at peace, because Jacob was an archetype, a model – he was setting the pattern for all his descendants, and indeed for the whole world, to follow. So God said to him: “You know that you cannot have private peace unless there is peace in the entire world.”

And the truth is that – though we are not archetypes like Jacob – as long as we know there are other people out there who are in pain, we can never be at peace. But being sensitive to their pain will lessen their pain and ours also.

So when God refused to grant Jacob’s request for peace, He was giving him instead the greatest blessing of all – the gift of empathy, the gift of uniting with others in their pain. Jacob could not have known the benefits at the time. He could only endure his pain. But in return he received … eternity.



Every one of us has a dark side – deep, dark crevices, where our worst lurks. Freud and other psychologists say we can never truly tame that dark “beast” within, the force that can cause us to think and behave in ways that make us ashamed.

What does Chanukah – the holiday of light – have to say about these shadowy corners of our psyche? Can we do anything about our darker side, or are we doomed to live with it?

We are certainly not doomed. That could never be the Jewish view.

Indeed, Judaism sees the ugly, dark side of man as having redeemable features. That dark is considered a form of inverted or concealed light – a black hole, so to speak. There is a Godly aspect even to the dark side, it is just that we have to look more deeply for it and work harder to reveal it.

This sermon takes us on a trip into the cosmic void of existence, coming out with newfound light and energy that can only be revealed in the darkest places.


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