Living our lives to serve Hashem


Our parasha, Vayashev, begins with the pasuk: “Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan” (Bereishit 37:1). At first glance, it appears to be redundant, since two chapters earlier, the Torah presented a number of pasukim that clearly indicate that Jacob was, indeed, “in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan.”

One of the meta-principles of classic Torah exegesis is the singular import of every letter, word and pasuk. Therefore, each verse is deemed vitally necessary — even when its significance initially eludes us. As such, it is incumbent upon us to ask, “Why does the Torah tell us once again: ‘Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan’?”

As in many matters of this nature, Rashi offers deep insights into “the story behind the story.” In one of his midrashically-based comments on the second verse of our parasha, he refers to the word “dwelt” from our verse, and helps us understand its inclusion in the Torah: “It is further expounded upon [as follows]: ‘Dwelt.’ When Jacob sought to dwell in tranquility, the troubles of Joseph sprang upon him. The righteous seek to dwell in tranquility. Said the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘What is prepared for the righteous in the world to come [great reward] is not sufficient for them! They seek [as well] to dwell in tranquility in this world’.”

Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi, the Mizrachi, reminds us in his explication of Rashi’s gloss that there were other desperate scenarios that Jacob faced prior to Joseph’s tragic sale by his brothers: his wrenching time with Laban, the trials and tribulations of his physical journey from Haran, his visceral fear of Laban and Esau, his abject consternation for Dinah following Schechem’s outrageous act, and his depth-level trepidation that the nations surrounding the town of Shechem would launch an attack against his family in retribution for Simeon and Levi’s sacking of the town and the murder of its male inhabitants. Beyond a doubt, rather than finding the tranquility he sought, Jacob encountered trial after trial.

Rabbi Moses Sofer, the Chatam Sofer, asks a very straightforward question regarding Rashi’s comment: “Is it not the case that the Holy One is good and seeks to bring about good (tov u’mativ) [to His creations]? If so, why would He be so strongly opposed (literally, “hate”) to righteous individuals benefitting from both worlds [this world and the world to come]?”

While the Chatam Sofer offers a variety of responses to his question, I believe his son, Rabbi Abraham Samuel Benjamin Sofer, the Katav Sofer, provides one of the best approaches. He begins by noting that Rashi changed the text of Midrash Rabbah, Bereshit 64:1. Therein, it was Satan and not Hashem, as in Rashi’s text, who declares: “What is prepared for the righteous in the world to come [great reward] is not sufficient for them! They seek [as well] to dwell in tranquility in this world!” In addition, the Katav Sofer emphasizes that the midrash, unlike Rashi’s version, includes two references to dwelling in tranquility: “When the righteous dwell in tranquility (sh’yoshvim b’shalvah), and seek to continue to dwell in serenity (u’mevakshim leishav b’shalvah) in this world (b’olam hazeh).” 

The Katav Sofer now asks two questions regarding the original text of the midrash: “What is the difference between the terms ‘sh’yoshvim b’shalvah’ and ‘u’mevakshim leishav b’shalvah,’ and why is the obvious phrase, ‘b’olam hazeh,’ used. After all, where else could it be?” He suggests that the reason why tzadikim desire to live in peace and harmony is to avoid the misery associated with poverty. Additionally: “This is in order [to give them the freedom to live life in a normal fashion] so that they will not be prevented from preparing themselves for life in the World to Come. As our Sages stated in Pirkei Avot: ‘If there is no flour [sufficient food,] there can be no Torah’ (3:17). This concept is found, as well, in the words of King David, peace be upon him, who said: ‘May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the L-rd forever more’.” (Tehillim 23:6)”

Seeking this level of parnasah is totally acceptable and exemplifies the idea of “dwelling in tranquility.” According to the Katav Sofer, however, if tzadikim have achieved this status and then u’mevakshim leishav b’shalvah (seek even greater pleasures in this world), there is a serious problem, for the pursuit of mere self-gratification leads one “to legitimately fear that as a result of the bounty that a tzadik has received he will, G-d forbid, [ultimately] reject Hashem.” As the Torah testifies: “And Jeshurun (the Jewish people) became fat (rich) and rebelled; you grew fat, thick and rotund; [Israel] forsook the G-d Who made them, and spurned the [Mighty] Rock of their salvation.” (Devarim 32:15)

At this juncture, the Katav Sofer recapitulates his thoughts and, in so doing, explicates the inherent meaning of the original Midrashic text: “In sum: ‘When the righteous dwell in tranquility and seek to continue to dwell in serenity in this world (b’olam hazeh),’ for the purpose of this world (olam hazeh), rather than to perfect their souls in the World to Come, then the Satan will, indeed, come and criticize them by proclaiming: ‘What is prepared for the righteous in the world to come is not sufficient for them! Therefore, they desire to dwell in tranquility in this world for the wrong reasons! Instead of preparing themselves for the World to Come, they pursue hedonistic pleasures in this world —  solely for the sake of this world’.”

In sum, if tzadikim pursue hedonistic goals in this world, they will be unable to sufficiently focus their energies on perfecting their spiritual being.

The Katav Sofer’s words are clearly focused upon tzadikim. I believe, however, that they are deeply relevant for us all. King Solomon declared: “Whoever loves silver will not be sated with silver” (Kohelet 5:9). Our Sages followed his lead and proclaimed: “Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot. As is stated: ‘If you eat of the toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is it to you’ — ‘fortunate are you’ in this world, ‘and good is it to you’ in the World to Come.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)

With Hashem’s great kindness, may we be zocheh to live lives that reflect the wisdom of King Solomon and the powerful insight of our Sages, so that we, too, may live in tranquility in this world as dedicated servants of the Almighty. V’chane yihi ratzon.