Vayeshev: Prosperity and tranquillity

Joseph is given the chance his father sought.

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Rabbi Lazer Gurkow,

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow


After Jacob returned from Haran, where he contended with the avarice and deceit of his uncle Laban, he was forced to face his long-standing nemesis and brother Esau. Once that was done, Jacob sought to settle down and raise his family in relative peace and comfort. He hoped to enjoy the prosperity that he had accumulated in Haran and luxuriate in a little tranquility.

Yet, before he had a chance to catch his breath, a new problem arose. His children began to bicker; an annoyance that grew into a conflagration when the brothers sold Joseph into slavery. Jacob must have been distraught as history repeated itself. First his own brother wanted to kill him, and then his sons wanted to kill their brother. Was there no end to suffering?

Our sages made the following observation: “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 is not sufficient for them, but they seek [also] to dwell in tranquility in this world?”

Our sages make it sound like Jacob was wrong to seek tranquility. But why is that wrong? Didn’t Jacob deserve some peace, luxury, comfort, security, and prosperity as he entered the sunset of his life?

Our sages say that it is unfair to expect tranquility in this world and reward in the world to come. But why must it be so? Over the course of history, there have been many wealthy sages who enjoyed tranquility and prosperity in this world and reward in the world to come. In fact, we don’t need to dig deep to find such examples. Jacob’s grandfather Abraham, his father Isaac, and his son Joseph, all enjoyed prosperity and tranquility in this world and reward in the next. Why is Jacob different?

A Trial

When the righteous seek tranquility and prosperity, it is not for their sake. It is for the sake of heaven. When a wealthy person, who occupies a prestigious position in the community, observes Shabbat, studies Torah, deals honestly, and is charitable, it has a huge impact on the community. People marvel when someone in that position is humble and giving, observant, learned, and pious. Others want to emulate such behavior and it sanctifies the name of G-d. This is prosperity for the sake of heaven. Not for the sake of lining our own pockets.

However, wealth carries its own risks. As the saying goes, there is no trial like the trial of wealth. The poor are constantly thinking of G-d, talking to G-d, praying to G-d, and railing against G-d. The poor and G-d are in a relationship. The wealthy are tempted to forget G-d because life is tranquil.
Another problem is this: When one is poor and unknown, it is easy to remain humble and pious. No one pays them much attention and they go unnoticed. However, once one grows wealthy, the world starts paying attention and homage. They hobnob with the rich and famous and it becomes difficult to turn down invitations because they observe Shabbat or Kosher. It is difficult to remain humble when one is powerful. The trials of wealth are not negligible. They are significant.

This is why we pray daily, “lead us not into temptation.” If G-d bestows tranquility and prosperity, it is a sign that we can handle the trial and overcome the temptation. But it is extremely inappropriate to ask for such trials.

Jacob’s Wish

Jacob was deserving of tranquility in his senior years. The problem was not that he was undeserving. The problem was that he sought it: “Jacob sought to dwell in tranquility.” He asked for it. Asking for tranquility, asking to live in fame, and prosperity, is wrong because it is a path that leads to temptation.

We can understand why Jacob asked. When he was a child, his father, Isaac, preferred Esau to Jacob. Our sages taught that this was because Esau would always ask Isaac questions about how to live piously. Many wondered about this. If Isaac knew anything about his sons, he would have known that Jacob was even more pious than Esau. If he was impressed by Esau’s questions he should have been even more impressed with Jacob’s behavior.

Some have explained that Isaac was more impressed with Esau because of the company Esau kept. Esau lived among hunters and thieves and yet remained (In Isaac’s estimation) honest and upright. Jacob’s piety was not as impressive because he lived in the tents of Torah. Piety was pretty much expected of him.

Shortly after receiving the blessings from his father, Jacob departed for Haran, where, for the very first time, he was forced to keep company with degenerate, self-absorbed, deviants and scoundrels. Yet, Jacob returned with his piety intact, having never compromised any of the Torah’s commandments. Jacob discovered that he was indeed capable of withstanding temptation and of remaining upright even in the company of scoundrels. He therefore felt comfortable asking for the next temptation–tranquility and prosperity. He wanted to use his prosperity, tranquility, and fame, for the sake of heaven and was not concerned about the risks – knowing that he could overcome them.

Joseph

G-d agreed that it was time to demonstrate fidelity to G-d in circumstances of wealth, power, and fame. But this role would not fall to Jacob, who had asked for it. It would fall to Joseph, who did not. Shortly thereafter Joseph had two dreams. In one he saw himself as the recipient of great wealth, in the other he saw himself as the recipient of power and prestige. His brothers envied him, but his father awaited the outcome of the dreams. His father understood that Joseph would be given the chance that his father had sought.

Indeed, Joseph went to Egypt, where he became powerful, famous, and wealthy, yet he remained humble, pious and faithful. Joseph passed the test that his father had so desperately sought. We learn from this that prosperity is not an easy life of smooth sailing. It is a challenge not easily undertaken. Yet, if we are granted this gift, it is because G-d trusts us to overcome its trials.






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