Tranquility and Turbulence

  • Rav Alex Israel
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Tranquility and Turbulence

By Rav Alex Israel


            Rashi quotes a disturbing midrash in the opening lines of the parasha:


"Vayeshev Yaakov" — Yaakov wished to dwell in calmness and tranquillity, but the trouble (lit., rage) of Yosef pounced upon him.  God said: "Tzaddikim want a peaceful life? Is the good that awaits them in the World to Come not sufficient, that they desire calmness and tranquillity in this world?"


I say that it is disturbing, because if we are to take the message of this midrashic comment to heart, then what is being demanded from the righteous is to expel all aspirations of personal calm and harmony, and to set forth on a path of torment and self denial.  Is this the ideology which is recommended by the midrash? We shall return to the theology in a few minutes. 


            But for now, let us attempt to examine the midrashic method itself.  How is this midrash created? From where does it draw its ideas?




            The opening line of our parasha creates a number of difficulties.  The pasuk reads:


"Yaakov settled down (vayeshev) in the land in which his father had sojourned (meGURei), in the land of Canaan." (37:1)


At first glance, this is a pretty simple pasuk.  The verse seems to be informing us that Yaakov is living in the same land as his father, somehow imitating him, walking in his footsteps.  He has returned to the Land of Canaan after his exile to the house of Lavan.  Now he returns to live in the same land as his father.  Clearly there is a sense of covenantal continuity here.  Yaakov expresses his status as heir to the covenant by his living in Canaan, following and deepening his father's tradition.  Interestingly, Rashi himself (on 37:1) contrasts this to an earlier verse (36:8) that uses similar terminology:


"Esav married his wives from the daughter's of Canaan … Esav took his wives, sons and daughters, and all his household, his livestock and cattle and all his possessions that he had acquired in the Land of Canaan, and he went to (another) land because of his brother Yaakov … Esav settled (vayeshev) in Mt Se'ir … And these are the generations (eleh toledot) of Esav.." (36:2-9)


The contrast is clear.  In Chapter 36 we read how Esav leaves the land of Canaan in order to settle elsewhere, in the land of Se'ir.  The aim of the parallel is to demonstrate how Yaakov is following the path of the covenant "in the land in which his father sojourned," whereas Esav has chosen to leave the land of Canaan[1] in a manner reflective of his non-covenantal status.  So we have a contrast between Yaakov and Esav, and we have a statement regarding the sense of unity that links Yaakov to his father Isaac.


And so, on first glance, we understand the thrust of this pasuk and its purpose.  It gives us the sense that Yaakov is the heir to the covenantal legacy.


            However, there are two primary problems with this pasuk.  The first relates to its placement.  This is the introductory line to the Yosef saga.  In the very next verse, the Torah begins the painful story of family jealousy, attempted murder, the sale of a brother—in short, the epic narrative of Yosef and his brothers.  The first question is: why does this verse act as an introduction to this story?  If the chapter is about Yosef, then how does this connect to Yaakov?


            Secondly, the use of language within the verse demands our attention.  Two verbs are used which, in a way, are synonymous; however, they do not share an identical meaning.  It is upon this wordplay that our midrash is based.  One verb, "shuv," has the connotation of "sitting" or "dwelling."  The other, "gur," has a resonance of unsettled wandering, an unending movement from place to place as if one cannot find one's place.


            If we accept this difference in language, we then reach the conclusion that Yaakov is settling down in a place in which his father was not settled.  Yaakov seeks stability and a status in permanence in a land in which his father was a transient.  (The word "ger" indicates a stranger, an outsider.)  If this is true, then we shall have to reverse our earlier understanding.  Now, it would appear that Yaakov is not imitating his father.  He is acting in a manner which is the very opposite of his father's way.  His father "sojourned;" he "settle[s] down."[2]


            This is precisely the imagery that our midrash develops.  Yaakov's desire for tranquillity is shattered by the pain and torment of the loss of his beloved son.  Yaakov seeks an ordinary, calm family life, but he is denied this by God.




            It is interesting to track the reappearance of the word "megurim" in Yaakov's life;[3] it resurfaces in a later conversation, when Yaakov and his family move to Egypt and Yaakov is presented to Pharaoh (47:8-9):


            Pharaoh asked Yaakov, "How many are the years of your life?"

Yaakov answered Pharaoh, "The years of my sojourn (megurai) are one hundred and thirty.  Few and bad have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life-spans of my fathers during the days of their sojourns (megureihem)."


            Towards the end of his life, Yaakov realizes that his life has been a life of sojourning and not a settled life.  In retrospect, he has experienced a series of painful episodes which have given him anything but tranquillity and peace.


            We have studied the midrash via Rashi, but the original midrash is certainly interesting in its own right.  It appears in Bereishit Rabba 84:3:


            Rav Acha said: "When the righteous sit in tranquillity or desire to sit in tranquillity in this world, the Satan comes and accuses[4].  He exclaims: 'Is that which is set for (the righteous) in the World to Come not enough, that they seek serenity in this world?'  This is certainly the case, for Yaakov Avinu sought to dwell in serenity in this world and the 'Satan' of Yosef attached himself to Yaakov: 'Yaakov settled down', but 'I had no repose, no quiet, no rest, and trouble came' (Iyov 3:26):


'I had no repose'—from Esav;

'No quiet'—from Lavan;

'No rest'—from Dina;

'And trouble came'—the trouble of Yosef."


This is the original midrash.  Note the way in which this midrash utilizes the character of Iyov, the long-suffering servant of God, as a model for Yaakov: the supporting verse of the midrash is from the Book of Iyov.  The appearance of the Satan as the accuser of Yaakov mirrors the story of Iyov as well. 


            The Midrash portrays Yaakov as endlessly afflicted by suffering, yearning for respite but not receiving it.  Indeed, we might feel that Yaakov deserves some rest! After all, he has been struggling all his life.  In utero, he struggles with his twin brother, a struggle that continues until he flees to Lavan.  There, in Paddan Aram, he must contend with Lavan, until he returns… to struggle again with Esav.  No sooner is he finished with Esav, we hear of the rape of Dina and the events at Shekhem.  Yes, Yaakov is in sore need of some calm.  Perhaps it is unsurprising that in the midrash, Yaakov is portrayed as a reflection of the Biblical personality Iyov; he is his partner in travail and endless suffering.  Indeed, Yaakov might have wished himself a reprieve from his troubles, but it never came.  What with the pain of Yosef, and the torment of life in Egypt, we are witnesses to a rather sad image as we watch the elderly Yaakov reflecting retrospectively upon his life, describing it as "bad."  Indeed it has been one long "sojourn."




            Thus far, we have dealt with megurei as the harshness of Yaakov's life, his constant torment.  This certainly seems like a harsh existence.  What is the problem with a life of serenity?  IS every good Jew, every tzaddik, destined to a life of suffering and distress?


            Let us return to focus upon the words of our Midrash.  First of all, we should note that ALL the Avot are described as wanderers rather than settlers: God tells Avraham that he will give him, "the land of your sojourns, the entire land of Canaan" (17:8).  God instructs Yitzchak: (26:3) "Sojourn in the land," and indeed, in the geographical sense of the word, we find the Avot incessantly travelling, moving from place to place: Beit El, Chevron, Be'er Sheva, Gerar.  They are constantly in transit.


            Our Midrash draws our attention to the unsettled, transient, portable dimension of the man of faith.  Interestingly, we do find the notion of walking in association with righteous figures in Sefer Bereishit:


5:22, 24: "And Chanokh walked with God"


6:9: "Noach walked with God"


17:1: "Hashem appeared to Avraham, and He said to him: '…Walk before me and be perfect."


But what is it for? This incessant movement—what does it accomplish? The Sefat Emet (5656) suggests a direction:


            "Lekh Lekha"—"Go forth for yourself" (12:1)—man is defined by his walking, and indeed man must always move up, level by level.  One must always aim to extract oneself from habit, from the state of the normal.  Even if one has reached a certain standard of avodat Hashem (religious intensity and practice), that too becomes second nature after a time and becomes the norm.  Therefore, at all times, one must renew one's soul and one's religious direction.


            Is this the key?  Sojourning is walking, mobility, progress, growth; the settled life is a life of complacency, compromise, spiritual paralysis and stagnation.  Routine is the nemesis of any individual who seeks to be constantly infused by self-examination and self-improvement.  Personal comfort and the obsession with secure surroundings will hinder free-spirited searching for God and goodness. 


            This being the case, even at the cost of great suffering, the Avot are forced to be in a constant state of non-settlement, of fluidity, of insecurity.  This is a powerful, if difficult, idea.




            As we stand anticipating Chanuka, another piece by the Sefat Emet elegantly complements this theme beautifully.  The Talmud, in its section that deals with the Chanuka lights, is interested in defining a correct timeframe to perform the mitzva so.  When is the appropriate time for the lights to be lit?  The Gemara (Shabbat 21b) defines it as "From sunset until the marketplace is empty (ad she-tikhleh regel min ha-shuk)."


            A straightforward halakhic reading of this statement indicates that one may light starting with dusk and continuing until later in the evening, as long as there is a potential for some passer-by to view our Chanuka lights.  Indeed, this is the halakha.


            But the Sefat Emet[5] creates a midrash of sorts on the words here.  He twists the text around and creates something new.  The Hebrew phrase here is "ad she-tikhleh regel min ha-shuk," "until every foot (regel) has left the marketplace."  The Sefat Emet plays with phrase and reads it as "ad she-tikhleh hergel min ha-shuk:" not "regel"—the feet of the passers-by—but "hergel," meaning routine, habit, learned behaviours!


            Chanuka, for him, is the festival of constant renewal.  The existence of a flame is dependent on a steady flow of fuel, the light shining in the darkness.  All of this represents the need to constantly rejuvenate our spiritual lives, to fight the drudgery of routine, and to be constantly increasing the light. 


Let us hope that we can manage to achieve renewal and growth in serenity rather than hardship!


Shabbat Shalom and Happy Latkes!



For Further Study

See the Ramban's commentary to Bereishit 25:8. 

Ask yourself: what is the contrast between the image of satisfaction and fulfillment as described there and the lack of calm and rootedness presented in this shiur?  Is it a function of the personal difference between Yaakov and Avraham?  IS it a contrast between the material and the physical?


[1] The phraseology here is strongly reminiscent of the split between Avraham and Lot.  Compare 36:6-8 with 13:5-11.

[2] If we look again (see last footnote) at the pasuk in 36:7, we can see the way that Yaakov is described along with Esav as "sojourning" in Canaan. Yaakov's "dwelling" takes on a stronger significance as we realise that it is a contrast, not only to his father's life, but to his own manner of living earlier on!

[3] The verb GUR also appears as Yaakov describes his stay in Paddan Aram with Lavan (32:5): "Im Lavan garti," "I lived with Lavan," indicating an unsettled existence as a stranger, a ger.

[4] The appearance of Satan in times of calm is expressed here and also in another midrash in Bereishit Rabba 38:7: "Rabbi Yitzchak said: Every place in which there is 'sitting' (yeshiva) the Satan pounces." This comment is certainly similar to ours.

Of course there are other ideas regarding circumstances in which we open ourselves up to the Satan (God's critique?).  Consider this example: "'A tragedy may befall [Binyamin] on the journey'—but not in the house?  Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov said: 'From here we derive that the Satan only accuses in moments of danger'" (Bereishit Rabba 91:38).

Thus, according to one opinion, idle stability invites criticism, and according to another, it is a choice to personally endanger one's life.

[5] Sefat Emet 5631 and 5632.

Because there is no Scriptural text that deals with Chanuka, many of the rabbinical sources use the Talmudic sections that address Chanuka as their primary source for their derashot (homilies) on the festival.