It’s been nearly two months now since the election – and we’re all tired. Tired of the divisiveness.
Tired of the rhetoric. Tired of politics. In just a few weeks, the reality of its results will begin to be manifest.
Most of us yearn for a time of peace and quiet. We just want to be able to settle comfortably into our lives, to relax without worries. But clearly, life just doesn’t work that way. It never has. As evidence, we can cite a recent Torah portion, which commences: “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan. This, then, is the line of Jacob: At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers…” (Gen.37:1-2).
Finally, after years of working for his in-laws for the privilege of marrying his two wives; after his long-awaited, intense encounter with his brother Esau, Jacob has settled in the Land of Promise. His father, Isaac, had merely sojourned there. Isaac was a traveler. Jacob aspires to another life. He settles down, his adventures over. Or so, the midrash tells us, he hopes. He deserved it, did he not – a respite from all his travails?
The Torah prepares us for the next generation; it hints at a new arm of genealogy. We know he has thirteen offspring. But here, we are introduced to just one: Joseph. Jacob’s favorite.
History does have a way of repeating itself in families. Jacob was Rebecca’s favorite; Esau, his father’s. One would hope that Jacob would have learned. That he fails to grasp this lesson bears unfortunate consequences. Jacob’s favoritism leads inexorably to catastrophe. Joseph’s brothers, irritated equally by Jacob’s uneven love and by Joseph’s adolescent attitude of superiority, throw Joseph into a pit, and later sell him as a slave. Jacob’s failure to learn from his own story results in his having shot himself in the foot. So much for a peaceful retirement.
What can we learn from Jacob, and from Joseph?
If we are looking for peace and quiet, we cannot afford to ignore the problems that continually rap at our door. Brushing them off merely allows them to fester and grow.
Judaism has never been an ascetic faith. We aren’t meant to be hermits who shun the world.
I am reminded of the story of Shimon bar Yochai. Sentenced to death for speaking out against the Roman Empire, the sage and his son, Rabbi Elazar, hid in a cave. For twelve years, they wallowed deep in sand (so as to preserve their clothing, which they removed), and subsisted only on carobs and water from a tree and stream that miraculously appeared at the cave’s entrance. Through all those years they occupied themselves with studying the Torah. Finally, a messenger came to them with the news that Caesar had died, and that they were free to leave their hiding place.
When Rabbi Shimon and his son emerged, they saw some farmers working in a field. Rabbi Shimon was shocked that his fellow Jews were not continuously occupied in Torah study. "How could anyone forsake eternal life by indulging in mundane, worldly pursuits?" he said. Rabbi Shimon then cast his eyes upon the farmers – and they were immediately vaporized by his gaze, on account of the power of Rabbi Shimon's spiritual stature.
At that point, a voice from heaven proclaimed: "My world is not to be destroyed! Return to your cave!" Rabbi Shimon and his son returned to the cave for another year, in order to learn better how to control their spiritual powers.
Serenity may lead to apathy – or worse, antipathy. Cutting ourselves off from the world is not the answer. Jacob learned this the hard way. Just when he thought he might be able to disengage, trouble erupted among his sons.
All of us crave a little tranquility in our lives. And we surely can grab what little we can. But we must be mindful that life will never stop moving – that people are flawed, and that problems will always be on the horizon. Our job is to work at fixing what we can – to labor at being a blessing to others.
A colleague recently called my attention to a YouTube video about a woman named Diane Rose. At an early age, she was stricken with glaucoma, and ultimately blinded. At first, she fell into despair and prayed to God to help her find her way. Diane awakened from her depression when a friend asked if she wanted to learn quilting, and she said yes. The friend assists her with colors and materi-als, but Diane does all the sewing herself.
Diane has labeled her blindness an inconvenience – not a handicap. It annoys her and challenges her. But she doesn’t let it stop her.
Life is unfair. It is bound to shatter our illusions of serenity. Rather than cower in a cave, we must rise to meet the challenge. When bad things happen, the Jewish approach is to ask what we can do. How we can be present for others? How we can be a blessing for others? How we can be a blessing to ourselves?
As Jacob learns to be Israel, we learn that settling is not an option. We must keep moving, and growing, and doing.
Because, oy! Do we have a lot to do!
With blessings for a productive, peaceful, and fruitful 2017 for us all,
Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein