Just as Jacob desired to settle in tranquility, the agony of Joseph pounced upon him
– Rashi in the opening of this week’s Torah portion
Just as life seems to be calm and peacefully moving along, tragedy strikes. Just as things seem to be normal and relaxing, October 7th hits us fast and hard.
How eerily reminiscent is this rude awakening of our weekly Torah portion: Just as Jacob returns to Israel and is ready to settle down, a new tragedy strikes. In their envy, Jacob’s sons sell their brother Joseph, telling Jacob that he was killed. Joseph ends up in prison in Egypt. Jacob believes his son is dead.
Jacob has struggled all his life. Even prior to birth he and his twin brother Esau clashed – two nations locked in perpetual battle. After taking Esau’s birthright and blessings, he escapes Esau’s wrath, only to go from the frying pan into the fire, spending twenty miserable years with his corrupt uncle and father-in-law Laban. However Jacob comes out a stronger and greater man, and finally confronts Esau. They reconcile for the moment, but then part ways, as they recognize how much more work needs to be done before the two Jacob/Esau forces of spirit and matter can achieve peace.
Finally, after all his hardships and struggles the 100 year old Jacob comes back home and wants to settle down in peace. But that is not to be. As Rashi cites the Midrash:
“Jacob desired to settle in tranquility, but the agony of Joseph pounced upon him. For when the righteous wish to settle in tranquility, G-d says: ‘Is it not enough for the righteous what is prepared for them in the World to Come, that they also ask for a tranquil life in this world?’”
Jacob the tzaddik (righteous person) will not have peace in this world.
Why not? Because a tzaddik – a real person – is never an island unto himself. The destiny of an individual is intertwined with the destiny of the world. If the world is suffering so is he. He cannot be at peace when there is no peace around him.
And the world was not yet at peace. As Jacob tells Esau in last week’s portion, “you know that the children are weak and I have responsibility for the nursing sheep and cattle. If they are driven hard for even one day, they will die… Please go ahead of me… I will lead my group slowly, following the pace of the work ahead of me, and the pace of the children. I will eventually come to you, my lord, in Seir.”
Jacob is telling us that there is much work to be done to resolve the inherent tension between the material and the spiritual. Before it is resolved, this tension will only escalate in the generations to come. This historical evolution of the wars between Jacob and Esau’s (and Ishmael’s) descendants is documented at the end of last week’s Torah portion.
Now, a chapter later, following these chronicles of Esau – which consists of a detailed list of the nations that would descend from him, concluding with Magdiel, father of Rome – come the chronicles of Jacob in this week’s portion. The tension between the two cosmic forces of Jacob and Esau is reflected and plays itself out in microcosm in Jacob’s home and family. If the world is not at peace than our homes will inevitable be affected in kind. And vice versa: Divisiveness in the family brings divisiveness around us. The way to repair the world is to repair the rift at home. How we build our home will affect how we build our world. Peace at home brings peace in the world.
The lesson today is clear:
Just as we are about to settle down, another tragedy strikes, teaching us that there is no room for complacency; important work needs to be done, both in our personal lives and homes and in the world at large. And as long as we don’t do it, trouble looms. When there is an enemy within, the enemy from without can easily attack.
Before September 11 we may have thought that these terrorist murders were isolated events in the Middle East – that they were “Israel’s problem.” Today however, we know better. Killing innocent people – whenever and wherever – is an assault, an atrocity against all innocent people. Many excuses can be proffered for killing innocent civilians. It infuriates me to no end when I hear people protest terrorist attacks, and then add: “but…” “But we need to review the causes that would bring them to do this;” “But we need to understand their frustration.” Every crime has a root no doubt: childhood abuse, mental illness, rage, grievances, legitimate or not. Yet murder is murder, crime is crime. As such it can never be tolerated in a civilized society.
The attack on any person, on any nation, of any persuasion – Jew, Christian, Muslim or atheist – is an attack on all of humanity. Period. If you cannot control yourself due to your ‘grievances’ then lock yourself up or have yourself locked up in an institution for people who are out of control. Period.
So, just as we were about to settle down, we grieve again. We must remember that evil that attacks ‘other’ innocent people even if they are abroad is an attack on all of us, on our homes and families. Does anyone doubt that at any moment America can be attacked – G-d forbid – by the same lurking evil?! We must not become apathetic again; we must always remember that problems outside always are connected with problems within. All these experiences teach and drive us to do what we must on the home front and abroad and not wait for more innocent people to suffer. As long as we do not awake we will be held hostage by the uncertainty ahead of us and we will be controlled by circumstances instead of taking control of them.
The question is: What are we to do? How do we take control? What peace do we need to build at home that will help bring world peace?
The answer lies in a deeper analysis of the rift between Joseph and his brothers. Why were Joseph’s brothers so angry with him to the point that they wanted to kill him?
Jacob’s eleven sons saw Joseph as a formidable threat to G-d and to fulfilling the Divine purpose of life. Each of the twelve tribes has a unique personality reflecting twelve vital aspects in life. Judah was designated to be the leader. His descendants – the House of David – were given kingship. When the brothers heard that Joseph dreamt that he would be their leader they saw this as mutiny against the Divinely ordained leadership of Judah. They foresaw the split that the children of Joseph would create in their mutiny against the house of David, the Kingdom of Israel that would break away from the Kingdom of Judah. To preempt this tragedy they felt that Joseph’s mutiny deserved death.
Why is Judah the appropriate leader and not Joseph? Judah (from the word ‘hodaah,’ “acknowledgment”) embodies faith and humility: the single most important ingredient in a true leader. He does not see himself as great, only as transparent channel of a Higher Will completely dedicated to serving his people. His ego and personality do not stand in the way between the people and G-d. Without absolute faith, humility and selflessness, leadership and the power that it wields is just plain dangerous.
Chassidic thought applies this to our personal lives: Judah is action and implementation (maaseh), Joseph is scholarship and knowledge (Talmud). Joseph’s great virtue, as his name implies, is the power of growth through wisdom and scholarship. For all its strengths scholarship without humility, knowledge without action, reason without faith, leads to arrogance and ultimately can become destructive. An absolute commitment to truth is built upon the unwavering foundation of faith.
The brothers however were mistaken in one critical regard: Timing. True, a perfect world would have Judah as its leader (Moshiach son of David), but while we still live in an imperfect world, where there is a dichotomy between matter and spirit (Esau and Jacob), ignorant faith can be even more dangerous. The passion of absolute faith without knowledge, humility without the direction of wisdom, action without first studying, can become misguided and misdirected, to the point of harming others in the name of ignorant faith. Thus, the need for Joseph’s leadership, to temper and balance the passion of Judah – wisdom to direct and guide one’s actions, knowledge to channel the power of faith. Joseph’s leadership (Moshiach son of Joseph) prepares and refines the world for the ultimate leadership of Judah (as related in the haftorah of the Vayigash portion).
This is the inside story and deeper significance of Jacob’s heartbreaking loss of Joseph and his inability to live in peace:
Jacob’s encounter and reconciliation with Esau makes him aware of the hard work to come in refining the world. Jacob recognizes that we must go “slowly, following the pace of the work ahead of me.” After the Torah lists the chronicles of Esau – which testify to the nations that would confront each other confirming Jacob’s fears – Jacob finally returns to Israel (Canaan), the land and home of his parents. He wants to live in peace, but he is quickly reminded with the tragedy of Joseph that as long as the world is not at peace he will not be at peace.
What the … is going on? Didn’t Jacob suffer enough? He had to escape Esau, live by his corrupt uncle Laban, returns and confronts Esau – by now Jacob is worn down and wants to live in peace. What does G-d do, he sends him yet another trauma!
Because the refinement of Esau is far from complete, the world is not yet ready to be at peace with G-d. So neither is Jacob. The selling of Joseph is a result and symptom of the pre-existing problems.
At the same time, the remedy lies within the illness. Joseph’s clash with his brothers teaches us how the repair and healing begins. We must begin by repairing the rifts in our homes – the rift between faith and reason, knowledge and action, humility and scholarship. We must teach ourselves and our children that it is not just enough to know what is right, but to do what is right. On the other hand: faith and belief need to be internalized through study and education. The fusion of Joseph and Judah must be complete.
When we achieve the union in our personal lives and within our families, then we have the power to refine the world, and unite Jacob and Esau.
So when we see more violence around us, we need to remember that it is telling us that we must do something. The world will not be at peace until we finish the work we need to do. Death, violence, terrorism continues to haunt us as long as we do not repair the problems at the root.
It tells us that in order to heal the world we must first ensure that it does not contaminate our family. The divisiveness outside of your home, between Esau and Jacob, Ishmael and Isaac, and Esau and Ishmael must not be allowed to infect peace in your home. As Esau goes to war with Ishmael and Ishmael is attacking Israel, we must not allow this attack to cause hostility between Jacob’s children, to begin fighting with each other. No enemy from without can win you if you stand unified as a family. “Our father [G-d] blesses us when we are united as one.” Indeed, divisiveness within allows attacks from without. We must stand strong and united together with one voice of determination against your enemies.
You cannot negotiate with people that call for your destruction. In last week’s Torah portion Jacob rejects Esau’s offer to live side by side with him, as does Sarah regarding Isaac and Ishmael. They clearly understood that until the world is perfected in the time of Moshiach, separation is necessary for peace.
But people are not always wise. They begin to bicker with each other, until they can end up selling their own brother into slavery…
The unity that must be achieved is between our understanding and our action. When under attack people must unite and act accordingly with decisive resolution and with no ambiguity. They must declare for all to hear: We are a land with laws. If you want to live in this land you must abide by them or leave. This is the way any normal civilized country behaves – its first and primary priority is to protect its citizens.
After the Torah portions discuss the struggles of Ishmael and Isaac, and then Esau and Jacob, this week the war stage moves from the global to the local, from the street to the home, from Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, to Jacob’s family. To repair the world we must begin by repairing ourselves and our relationships. We must integrate our beliefs and our actions, our faith and wisdom. We must make peace with our brothers and sisters.
When we achieve harmony at home – shalom bayit – and end the divisiveness between each other, we are then empowered to go out and bring harmony to the world at large. To integrate matter and spirit, and make peace between Ishmael, Esau and Jacob – all children of the one Abraham, under one G-d.
Chanukah emphasizes this dual peace — peace at home and peace in the world. We light the Chanukah flames “at the door facing outward,” underscoring that the warm candles bring tranquility into our homes, and from there the warmth extends into the street, into the community, into the world.
Tonight, on the first night of Chanukah, Jews worldwide will light one candle. One flame. But collectively millions of flames; lighting up the world, one person, one home, one world at a time.