Rashi, in a famous passage in his Torah commentary (beginning of Parashat Vayeshev), presents the following introduction to the story of Yosef and his brothers, citing from the Midrash:
Yaakov sought to dwell in tranquility, but then the anguish of Yosef immediately pounced on him. The righteous seek to dwell in tranquility, but the Almighty says: “Is it not enough for the righteous that which is prepared for them in the next world, that they seek to live in tranquility even in this world?”
Many writers have struggled to explain why Chazal here seem to find fault in Yaakov’s desire – and that of other righteous people – for “tranquility.” Why should he be punished with the unimaginable grief of mekhirat Yosef simply for desiring what all people desire – a life of peace and serenity?
One explanation, perhaps, is that Chazal here speak of a very natural human tendency, namely, to anticipate perfect “tranquility” once a given problem is solved, or once a given desire is fulfilled. Esav’s threat of revenge forced Yaakov to flee to Lavan, and immediately after completing his difficult stay with Lavan and reuniting peacefully with Esav, his sons launched an assault on Shekhem, endangering the family. God intervened to protect Yaakov (35:5), and Yaakov finally arrived at his father’s home in Chevron. He now anticipated that having endured the long series of difficult challenges and hardships precipitated by his stealing his brother’s blessing, he would now, once and for all, enjoy tranquility. Instead, his family quickly came upon a new crisis, with Yosef being sold by his brothers as a slave. Drawing upon the extreme example of Yaakov’s troubled life, Chazal here alert us to the fact that every stage of life and every circumstance we find ourselves in poses its own unique challenges. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that once we solve our current problems we will enjoy unbridled “shalva” (“serenity”), because unbridled tranquility is experienced only in the next world, not in this world.
The Midrash’s intent, it would seem, is not to present a gloomy depiction of life, but rather to urge us to make the most of our present situation, with all its attendant challenges, rather than always looking ahead in anticipation of the future. Too often, we live not in the present, but rather in the future, looking ahead to the next stage, when our current struggles will end. Chazal implore us to try to find meaning, fulfillment and joy in whatever situation or stage we are in, rather than always looking ahead to the anticipated “shalva” of the future.