Parashat Vayeshev/Hanukka: Say no to strife

I've always felt that one of the most inane sayings is "Don't worry, be happy." Perhaps these words reflect the thoughts of a grazing cow, but they ought not serve as the dream of a serious human being.

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December 13, 2006 11:17
4 minute read.

 
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I've always felt that one of the most inane sayings is "Don't worry, be happy." Perhaps these words reflect the thoughts of a grazing cow, but they ought not serve as the dream of a serious human being. Our Psalmist teaches us that "Happy is the individual who is constantly concerned," and a truly religious person is called a haredi - one who trembles in his desire to serve God properly and overcome evil. Indeed, the very name Israel - given by God to Jacob, and the "brand name" by which our unique nation is known - means "he has fought against Godly and human powers, and has emerged victorious" (Genesis 32:29). I can still hear the words of my maternal grandmother: "There's plenty of time for rest and tranquility after 120 years, in the cemetery; this world is a place in which we must work and struggle." How can we expect to perfect the world in the kingship of the Divine without waging war against evil? From this perspective, one of Rashi's comments on this week's portion of Vayeshev seems perplexing: "Jacob wished to live in tranquility; there sprang up against him the anger of Joseph. The righteous wish to dwell in tranquility? The Holy one, blessed be He, says: 'Is what is being prepared for them in the world to come not sufficient, that they also wish to dwell in tranquility in this world?'" (Rashi on Gen. 37:2) How can the Almighty fault Jacob for desiring to live in tranquility? Did he not take on the battle for the birthright with "both hands" because he realized the vital importance of leading the clan of Abraham? Did he not struggle against Laban to escape the seduction of assimilation? Certainly Jacob's life would have been far more tranquil - and perhaps his beloved Rachel might never have died as she did - had he remained with his herds and not undertaken the dangerous journey back home! Struggle was the hallmark of Jacob's life. Indeed, Jacob's fundamental prayer was much more in line with Rabbi Nahman's: "Dear God, I don't ask you to make my life easy; I only implore you to help make me strong." Strength in the face of struggle is what has characterized the righteous of Israel throughout our ideal-driven and blood-soaked history! I believe the answer lies in understanding the Hebrew term shalva, as in "Jacob wished to dwell in shalva," which I translated as tranquility. The Book of Proverbs (17:1) takes the Hebrew shalva as referring to household harmony: "It's better to have a dry crust of bread in tranquility (shalva) than a full table of roast meat with familial strife." Our righteous are prepared to wage wars against the likes of Laban and Esau, who would destroy us with their hatred from without while they attempt to undermine our ideology from within; they well understand the mission of Israel, the mandate of being a kingdom of priests (kohanim), a light unto the nations. What we must seek to avoid are the petty jealousies and trivial tensions within the Jewish family itself - strife which arises not as a result of our struggle for survival or our messianic purpose, but rather from individual ambition and personal pique. Jacob understood that he would have to combat the likes of Esau and Laban to protect Israel's birthright; such a struggle is built into the name Israel. What he resented was the anger against his beloved Joseph, who deserved - by virtue of his gifts of character and universal vision - to have been favored. Yet it was, after all, this paternal favoritism which aroused the petty sibling rivalry that almost led to Joseph's death. Hence it's at least as important to expend time on familial harmony as on material survival. What we must learn from the Joseph stories is that the status of the Jewish family feeds into - and ultimately determines - the status of the Jewish nation. I recently led an Ohr Torah Stone Rabbinical Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay. I learned there of the amazing accomplishments of one Rabbi Milevsky in the first half of the 20th century whose influence is still felt in Montevideo. He left his first pulpit as the result of a bitter feud between butchers and ritual slaughterers, after which he built a second synagogue, where he remained for several decades. At the dedication of the second synagogue, he declared: "Let it never be said that this newly established congregation was born out of strife; let it rather be known that it was born out of war." Strife is engendered by petty individuals in search of personal gain: war is fought by generals on behalf of great ideals. Our patriarch Jacob, like Rabbi Milevsky, was a great general, prepared to wage a fateful war if necessary, but who had little patience for the bickering of picayune personalities. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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