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Parashat Vayeshev 5776 — 12/05/2015

Parashat Vayeshev 5776 — 12/05/2015

Bereishit 37:1-40:23

The very first Rashi on our parashah discusses the word vayeshev – he [Ya’akov] settled [in his father’s land].  The Hebrew word has the connotation of settling down, resting, being at peace.  If one’s mind is settled it is said to be meyushav, from the same root.  Unfortunately, Ya’akov doesn’t get to settle in for very long before his favorite son, Yosef, is torn away from him:

Jacob wished to live in tranquility, but then the trouble of Joseph sprang upon him.  When the tzaddikim wish to live in peace, The Holy One, Blessed is He, says, “Is it not enough for the tzaddikim that so much is prepared for them in the next world, that they seek to live in peace in this world?”  (Bereishit Rabbah 84:3)

It appears that R. Steinsaltz goes in two directions on this.  On the one hand, he says:

To be sure, the very transition to a life of Torah and mitzvot requires a momentous, fateful decision, but ultimately such a life provides, in certain respects, a great deal of calm.  To put it more profoundly: A world where Gd exists is a world of peace of mind and security.  A world where Gd does not exist is a world that is fraught with anxiety and insecurity; it is like an endless maze.

 On the other hand, he also writes:

In a sense, it is the scholar – the one with the most knowledge of all – who asks the most questions.  A non-scholar has no questions to ask, not because he knows the most, but because he knows the least.  In giving us the Torah, Gd is not selling us tranquility.  Tranquility is not part of the reward.  Rather, one who reaches a state in which he has no more questions, difficulties, doubts, or problems, is not the ideal man, but, on the contrary, is one who has left the world entirely.

How are we to reconcile these two approaches?  I’d like to suggest one possible way of looking at the issue – perhaps our evaluation of the idea of tranquility is different from the perspective of the path than it is from the perspective of the goal.  To understand this, we should understand what the goal of religion is.

There is a common witticism: “The purpose of religion is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”  This is certainly true – a religious person should see it as his duty to extend aid to anyone experiencing troubles in their life, while at the same time always striving to grow and get out of his own personal ruts.  The word “religion” comes from “re-ligere” which means “to bind back” – to restore a bond that has been broken.  I would argue that this bond is with the infinite basis of all existence.  In our tradition we say Gd – one could argue that the basis of Judaism is t’shuvah, “repentance,” but literally “return” – to Gd and to the integrated value of our own personality.  All the mitzvot that we perform, all the prayers we say, all the Torah we study, ultimately have the purpose of connecting us to Gd, to attune our minds with Gd’s Mind to the greatest extent possible.

Now it would seem that the infinite is infinitely different from the finite.  Isaiah “quotes” Gd: As high as the heavens are above the earth, so are My ways above your ways, and My thoughts above your thoughts (55:9).  If this is strictly true, then anything finite (e.g. a human being) can at best approach the Divine asymptotically.  We have to be forever growing, and that means forever moving out of one comfort zone and into another.  For such a person, of course there is no tranquility – his life is always moving, always changing.  Life is always throwing up new challenges and tests, for it is by meeting those challenges and tests that one stretches, grows and evolves.  This is the reality of the path.

I believe there is another reality, or another level of reality, that will explain the other side of R. Steinsaltz’ two quotes.  The infinite is, to be sure, infinitely different from the finite.  While remaining finite, there is no way we can approach the infinite – it is forever beyond us, like the event horizon of a black hole.  There is, however, an alternative to remaining finite.  Great souls in all traditions have described experiences of transcendence in which the infinite is actually experienced directly by the mind.  In other words, the mind transcends thought, and is left with just itself, its own awareness.  Since there are no boundaries of thought, this level of experience is unbounded, beyond time and space.  There is no change, just pure Being.  It is profoundly silent.  In Chasidic thought, this state is called devekut, literally “clinging” to Gd.  And this state is, in fact, extremely tranquil – it is like the depths of the ocean, which are completely unaffected by all the waves and turbulence of the surface of the ocean.

I think that all the procedures of life that we have in Judaism have been established to allow us to experience this state, and to cultivate it in our awareness so that it remains as the basis of our awareness, even during dynamic outward-directed activity.  When this happens, we are living the goal of a Torah life, and we do attain a state of inner calm that persists no matter what is going on in our lives.  This does not mean that there may be no trials that we have to face – it simply means that we face them without losing our connection with our own infinite nature.  And that means that whatever life throws at us, we handle it effectively and use it as an opportunity for growth.  Perhaps that is the real meaning of Vayeshev Ya’akov – Ya’akov had undergone numerous trials at the hands of Esau and Lavan, and had more to come.  But through it all he was meyushav da’at – his mind was completely composed, settled in the infinite, and on that basis he was able not only to survive, but to thrive.

Haftarah: Amos 2.6-3.8

A lion has roared, who would not fear?  My Lord Hashem/Elokim has spoken, who would not prophecy? (3:8)

The connection of the Haftarah to the parashah actually is found earlier, where there is a reference to “selling the righteous one for silver.”  This of course relates to the sale of Yosef, who is actually the only person in Torah who is referred to as “the righteous” (hatzaddik).  The actual Haftarah seems to be in two parts.  The first part, (2:6-16) is an excoriation of Israel’s leadership for its insensitivity to the poor and the vulnerable, which has obvious relevance to our society nowadays.  The second part (3:1-8) speaks of Gd’s control of all the affairs of the world – in fact, in a series of analogies, the prophet asks, “Isn’t it obvious that Gd is controlling everything?”  Apparently it isn’t obvious to everyone, or we wouldn’t behave the way we do!  The last verse, which is one of my favorites, highlights the difference between the prophetic experience and the ordinary experience of most of us.  A lion has roared, who would not fear?  We can all hear a lion roar – all it takes is our physical sense of hearing.  My Lord Hashem/Elokim has spoken, who would not prophecy?  But we don’t find much prophecy any more; our Sages tell us that prophecy ended around the beginning of the Second Temple period, some 2500 years ago.  Gd is speaking to us all the time, in every event in our lives, but we can only hear it with our inner senses, the fine feeling level that is attuned to the “still, small voice” inside that is trying to keep us on the right path.  We owe it to ourselves to cultivate those inner senses, to listen carefully, to start to hear Gd.