REST, RELAXATION, AND RETIREMENT?
Michael D. Gros
The Torah portion begins with the words "Vayeshev Yaakov -- And Jacob settled." Jacob had suffered greatly throughout his life, and hoped at this moment that he could finally settle in peace to Canaan.
The Torah portion begins with the words "Vayeshev Yaakov -- And Jacob settled." Jacob had suffered greatly throughout his life, and hoped at this moment that he could finally settle in peace to Canaan. Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, explains that this verse refers to Jacob’s desire to settle in tranquility. Jacob had suffered greatly in his lifetime--he was forced to lie to his father, was pursued by his brother, and was cheated by his father-in-law. After all the travails of his lifetime, all he desired was to sit back, put his feet up, and enjoy the remaining years of his life. At this moment, Jacob thought that his life was complete. He had brought up twelve sons, and so had continued on the passing on of the Torah. He therefore had reason to believe that at this moment he could rest and enjoy his retirement.
As the Yiddish proverb tells us, "Man makes plans, and G-d laughs." As hard as we try to do something, G-d often has other intentions. Even though we believe that we know what is best for us, only G-d knows what is right. When Jacob thought that his life was finished, G-d had other plans. As soon as the Torah says that Jacob settled, it goes on to tell us about the sale of Joseph, and the affair of Judah and Tamar. These may seem like unconnected coincidences, but nothing in life is a coincidence. In actuality, the tranquility of Jacob directly led to the problems in his family.
To understand why this would be, it is necessary to learn a lesson from Chanukah. There is a debate in the Talmud between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai as to how the menorah should be lit. Shammai says that the candles should be lit in descending order, i.e. eight candles on the first night, seven candles on the second night, etc., down to one candle on the eighth night. The House of Hillel disagrees, and says that the candles should be lit in ascending order, i.e. one on the first night, two on the second night, etc. Just as the candles increase from day to day, giving off a brighter flame each day, so should we grow every day. Every day we must grow in our commitment to Judaism, striving to do a little more each day. We should never say to ourselves, "I have reached perfection, and am incapable of growing any more." Each day we are able to grow more, study more, adopt a new mitzvah, etc.
This was the mistake that Jacob made. Jacob thought that he was at the end of his life, and had achieved all that he could. As soon as he made this fatal error, G-d sent a wake-up call, saying that it wasn’t yet time to rest.
We can also gain insight into this idea from the story of the Maccabee’s struggle against the Greeks. The Maccabees fought against the Greeks and against the Hellenized Jews who had adopted the Greek culture. The Maccabees fought against not just Greek occupation of Israel, but also against the Greek morals which were corroding Jewish life.
Hellenism believed in raising the body and its physical demands to the utmost level. They believed that the body was a palace, to be revered, admired and cared for. The Greeks believed in rest, easy living, and the raising of pleasure to the highest level. This is diametrically opposed to Judaism, which preaches spiritual and intellectual passions, long-term growth versus immediate reward, and action instead of tranquility. While the Greek went to the gymnasium to improve his physical body and to the sauna to rest, the Jew went to the synagogue to get closer to Hashem and to study hall to improve his mind and his character.
In this lies the mistake that Jacob made. The Maccabees rebelled against the philosophy of rest and tranquility, recognizing it as a waste of our G-d-given abilities. Jacob should have realized that he still had the ability to grow and live. As the House of Hillel explained, every day it is important to place another candle into the menorah, to grow and develop to the best of our abilities. May G-d give us this ability, and the strength to grow a little more each day.
Michael D. Gros, an alumni of Emory University in Atlanta, writes from New York.
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