By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Several year ago, there was a joke told frequently that concerned a woman from the Bronx who sought to visit a famous guru somewhere in the Far East. She boarded a plane and began the long and arduous flight, landed at the closest airport to the remote ashram, or temple, where the guru had his mountain retreat. Then took a donkey cart to meet the guru.
When she finally arrived at the guru’s quarters, she learned that the guru has just begun a period of fasting and meditation and could not be interrupted. She finally persuaded the guards that she only wanted to say three words to the guru.
And so, they allowed her access into the guru’s inner chamber. There she found him sitting in the lotus yoga position, totally entranced in his meditation. She approached him, but he remained unaware of her presence. Finally, she bent over and whispered in his ear: “Melvin, come home!”
Although this phenomenon is no longer as prevalent as it once was, today many people remain dissatisfied with the Western way of life which is centered around the relentless pressures and frantic pace. Many seek an alternative that promises serenity, tranquility, and inner peace.
This leads us to a question that connects to this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23): “Is there anything wrong with seeking tranquility and inner peace? Are they not highly desirable components of a healthy and meaningful lifestyle?”
An answer can be found in the words of the Midrash Rabbah that appear in most contemporary editions of Rashi’s commentary, although they are absent from earlier manuscript editions.
The first words in this week’s Torah portion read: “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned…” The Bible then narrates the story of Jacob’s son Joseph and how he is sold into slavery by his brothers.
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, comments: “Jacob wished to dwell in peace and tranquility but immediately was beset by Joseph’s troubles and tribulations.” These words imply that it was somehow improper for Jacob to desire a calm and serene existence. The comment even suggests that Jacob was punished for his wish by suffering the disappearance, and supposed death, of his favored son.
Why? What possible sin would Jacob have committed by hoping for tranquility? Had he not suffered enough during his years of exile? Were the family crises described in detail in last week’s parsha not sufficient torture?
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter (the second Rebbe of Gur), the author of the Sfat Emet (“Lips of Truth”), a profoundly insightful Chassidic work, suggests that the calm and peaceful life is not necessarily religiously desirable. Such a life is conducive to complacency.
“What God wants from the Jew,” he writes, “is for him to have a life of constant toil in the service of His Blessed Name, because there is no limit to striving for perfection.”
The Torah’s ideal is a life of action and involvement in worldly affairs. The Torah rejects the attitude of detachment and passivity which is implicit in the teachings of Eastern religions. The Torah cannot envision the good life if that life is without challenge. Achievement of inner peace is not the ultimate value, especially not if it results in withdrawal from responsible action within society.
The author of the Sfat Emet wrote his works in the latter half of the 19th century. But the important lesson he taught was expressed about a century before, in the words of Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzzato, the 18th-century Italian mystic, whose work Mesilat Yesharim (“The Path of the Just”) contains the following demanding passage:
“A man must know that he was not created to enjoy rest in this world, but to toil and labor. He should, therefore, act as though he were a laborer working for hire. We are only day laborers. Think of the soldier at the battlefront who eats in haste, whose sleep is interrupted, and who is always prepared for an attack. “Man is born to toil” (Job 5:7).
The teaching of both of these authors was anticipated by this passage in the Talmud (Berakhot 64a), as translated and elucidated in the Koren Talmud Bavli:
“Torah scholars have rest neither in this world nor in the World-to-Come, as in both worlds they are constantly progressing, as it is stated: “They go from strength to strength, every one of them appears before God in Zion.”
Some religions promise inner peace and serenity and advocate detachment. Judaism makes no such promises. It tells us that life is all about struggle and challenge, and it demands that we be actively involved in improving the world.