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Yaakov Sought to Dwell in Tranquility

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Yaakov Sought to Dwell in Tranquility

Adapted by Avi Shmidman and Dov Karoll


At the beginning of this week's parasha, Rashi (Bereishit 37:2 s.v. eileh) states that, at this point in his life, Yaakov sought to dwell in tranquility, but the ordeal of Yosef sprang upon him. He then generalizes this notion: the righteous seek to dwell in tranquility, but God says, "Is it not enough that the righteous will have tranquility in the World-to-Come, that they seek it in this world as well?"

The midrash on which this is based presents a somewhat different version. In the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 84:3), it is Satan who attacks the desire of righteous people to dwell in tranquility.

Let us return to the formulation common to both Rashi and the Midrash. The righteous do not simply hope for tranquility. The term used is "bikkesh" - it is a request. The righteous do not ask for wealth or power; they just want to live in tranquility, to have peace and quiet. Although Rashi (Vayikra 26:6 s.v. ve-natatti) states that even if one has other blessings, in the absence of shalom, of peace, it is as if one has nothing, nevertheless, as a dream and as a yearning, tranquility seems to be a moderate request at best.

However, the more moderate and limited the request and desire, the more frustrating is its denial. When one holds moderate hopes and they are not fulfilled, how great is the disappointment!

At the end of his life, Yaakov tells Pharaoh, "Few and unpleasant have been the days of my life" (47:9). But were they really so bad? All those years at home with Yitzchak and Rivka, and the fourteen years he spent in study at the yeshiva of Shem and Ever, learning Torah at the feet of the masters? And what about the years in Lavan's house? While he did have to work while there, and he did suffer at Lavan's hands, he nevertheless succeeded in building up his family and fortune. He came there alone and empty-handed, and left with a flourishing family and with wealth.

The key to Yaakov's negative evaluation of his life is his desire for tranquility at the beginning of parashat Vayeshev. Let us look at Yaakov's life surrounding this point, taking both a glance back and a glance forward, to gain some greater perspective on the significance of this stage.

Turning to last week's parasha: "And Yaakov came to Shekhem, 'shalem,' complete" (33:18). What is the specific connotation of "shalem"? He has survived the challenge of Esav, and he has survived the challenge of Lavan. Esav was out to kill him, and Yaakov managed to dodge that threat. Lavan states at the end of parashat Vayetzei, "It is in my power to do you harm…" (31:29), indicating that Lavan also presented a real physical threat. But both of these threats did not come to pass.

Yaakov has survived the external threats, and so he can now settle down, having achieved a state of being "shalem."

But what happens next? Fist comes the rape of Dina and the response of Shimon and Levi (chapter 34). After that is the story of Reuven and Bilha (35:22). These are crises from within. While the tragedy of Dina could have been attributed to Shekhem, Chazal (Bereishit Rabba 80:1) and Rashi (34:1) also ascribe it to her outgoing nature. Regarding the episode with Reuven, while Chazal (Shabbat 55b) insist that the assertion that Reuven sinned is erroneous, and that the verse is not to be taken literally, it is clear that there was some wrongdoing. This is explicitly clear from Yaakov's "blessing" to Reuven at the end of his life, "Because you went up to your father's bed and defiled it" (49:4). Whatever Reuven did, even if the physical action was only the moving of beds (Shabbat 55b, cited by Rashi 35:22), it was perceived by Yaakov as a rebellion against Yaakov's position as leader of the family. Reuven was undermining Yaakov's role within his own family, violating the basic family boundaries. This shows the beginning of the slow, internal deterioration of the family.

We now arrive at this week's parasha. Yaakov seeks tranquility. He has survived the external threats, and he now wants to concentrate on his family, focusing internally. The episodes with Dina and Reuven were disruptive, but Yaakov still retains his dream for tranquility.

But then, "the ordeal of Yosef sprang upon him." The internal deterioration moves to another level with the episode of Yosef and his brothers, and Yaakov is left with frustration and failure.

A question arises regarding the brothers' bringing the coat to Yaakov: why did they have to make it so graphic? Why not just tell Yaakov a story? The Ramban (37:32) explains that they needed to send a bloody coat so that Yaakov would not suspect them of killing Yosef. He explains that since Yaakov was aware of their jealousy, they would have been suspect in the absence of evidence.

Yaakov knew that there were issues between the maidservants' sons and Leah's sons (see Rashi 37:2 s.v. et dibbatam); thus, if they had just made up a story, he would have suspected that they killed him. The deterioration had gone so far that these were the issues that the brothers faced. Yaakov knew that there was such great animosity within the family that he would have suspected them of killing Yosef!


There is apparently a real deficiency in the education and values within the family. Education needs to be specialized to each element, to each unit and to each individual. It cannot be provided just in terms of the respective classes or groups within the society or the family. Overall, the family is full of problems, both socially and in terms of values. And, overall, there was a lack of unity.

We now understand Yaakov's statement to Pharaoh, "Few and unpleasant have been the days of my life." Yaakov's dream was to be able to settle down and develop his family. But when the external threats ceased, the internal ones began to sprout, disrupting the family from all directions, leading to the ultimate frustration and failure, for Yaakov's modest dream was left unfulfilled.

But we cannot claim that the first stage involved external difficulties alone, with internal problems developing only subsequently. At some level, the two are interrelated. Rashi (Devarim 1:3) quotes a Midrash (Sifrei, Devarim 2) which asks why Yaakov did not criticize Reuven at the time; why did he wait until the end of his life? The Midrash's response is astounding. Yaakov did not admonish Reuven earlier because he was afraid that Reuven would abandon Yaakov and join forces with Esav. The external threat comes back to haunt Yaakov, as a result of the internal deterioration. The problems are both internal and external, with the issues intertwined.

In our country of Israel, we are all seeking tranquility and praying for it. But the issue then arises regarding our internal problems. If we cannot maintain our internal peace, then it will all be for naught. Furthermore, the internal problems will bring the external threats back once more, as the Midrash states regarding Yaakov and Reuven.

It is our job, then, to ensure that the internal threats are stopped, to ensure that tranquility will reign internally. And in doing so, we can fulfill the wish of our patriarch Yaakov, who sought to live in peace and tranquility.

[Originally delivered on leil Shabbat, parashat Vayeshev 5762 (2001).]


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