We read in Parashat Vayeishev the story of how Yosef was cast into a pit by his brothers and then sold as a slave, after which the Torah tells of Yehuda’s marriage and his children. The Midrash, in a well-known passage (Bereishit Rabba 85), comments:
The tribes [Yaakov’s sons] were occupied with the sale of Yosef, Yosef was occupied with his sackcloth and fasts, Yaakov was occupied with his sackcloth and fasts, Yehuda was occupied with marrying a woman, and the Almighty was occupied with creating the light of Mashiach.
The Midrash here observes that everybody was “going about their business,” occupied with their own personal affairs, without realizing that at that moment, the seeds of Am Yisrael’s final redemption were being planted. The story of Yehuda and his children concludes with the birth of Peretz, from whom the Davidic dynasty – and hence the Mashiach – would descend. Even as it appeared that the family of Yaakov was crumbling, God was “busy” laying the foundations for the nation’s ultimate redemption.
While this appears to be the intent of the Midrash, Rav Simcha Bunim of Pashischa (in Kol Simcha) suggests a different reading. When we examine the Midrash’s list of what the various people in this story were involved with at that time, a distinction can be discerned between Yehuda and all the others. Rav Simcha Bunim understood that when the Midrash speaks of the brothers being “occupied with the sale of Yosef,” this refers to their remorse upon seeing their father’s state of inconsolable grief and anguish. Accordingly, it emerges that all the parties involved – with the exception of Yehuda – were “occupied” at this time with tears and prayer. Yaakov and Yosef were crying out to God in anguish, and the brothers were crying out to God in repentance. Yehuda, by contrast, did not cry – he proceeded to get married and build a family. Nevertheless, Rav Simcha Bunim writes, “No person knows the thoughts concealed within a person’s heart, and the Almighty looked more at Yehuda’s actions, and from him He created the light of Mashiach.” Even though Yehuda appeared to have engaged in purely mundane matters, and the others were involved in spiritual processes, nevertheless, God chose Yehuda’s area of focus at this time as the mechanism through which to produce Mashiach and sow the seeds for the final redemption. For this reason, Rav Simcha Bunim explains, the Midrash introduces this comment by citing the verse in Sefer Yirmiyahu (29:11), “For I know the thoughts.” God knows the thoughts of all people, and He knew the pure thoughts of Yehuda as he tended to seemingly mundane affairs, from which God produced Mashiach.
Rav Simcha Bunim’s reading of the Midrash underscores the point that religious engagement is not limited to inherently spiritual activities such as prayer. The source of our redemption is not the prayer and tears of Yaakov and his sons, but rather the struggles of Yehuda as he tried raising a family. We serve God in all areas of life, including those which appear to have no direct connection to religious ideals. Rav Simcha Bunim teaches us that avodat Hashem encompasses the full range of human activity, and is as relevant and vital when we tend to our jobs and our families as it is when we pray and study.