We conclude our discussion about Yaakov and Yosef, Chanukah, and the current Torah readings. Here’s what we have learned so far:
- Yaakov Avinu wanted to ‘live in tranquility’. Seemingly as a consequence, he was given the difficulty of losing Yosef.
- This was the last of the major trials that Yaakov had throughout his life. Earlier he had dealt with Esav’s hatred, Lavan’s manipulation, and Dinah’s capture.
- The Midrash in one location connects these episodes to Iyov’s expressions of suffering. In another location it links the verse from Iyov to the exiles which Bne Israel experienced.
- The Babylonian exile corresponded to idol-worship; the Madaite- Persian exile to adultery; the Greek exile to murder.
- The Greeks attempted to infuse Israel with impurity and thus chase away holiness- this parallels death/murder, which occurs when impure forces enter the body and overwhelm the holy soul.
- Yaakov suffered unusually upon losing Yosef; he couldn’t ‘forget’ him because Yosef was alive.
- Yaakov himself believed that his intense suffering stemmed from the deep tragedy of the situation: Bne Israel would not be properly built, and he would lose his own eternity.
We are left wondering: why was Yaakov given such a ‘deal’ involving his eternity and the building of Bne Israel? And why was Yaakov chosen for this arrangement rather than Avraham and Yitzchak?
The answer to both of these questions is that Yaakov had a special mission: to bear, raise and build the nation that would become known by his name: B’nei Israel. Whereas Avraham and Yitzchak before him had laid the foundations through their own accomplishments, Yaakov was meant to take the next step in fathering the Tribes, each of whose unique strengths would be expressed in different branches of the nation. Avraham and Yitzchak, despite their incredible greatness, retained microscopic flaws- the sort of shortcomings to which only God Himself can attest. Inscrutable as these issues were, the ‘spiritual DNA’ of Avraham and Yitzchak thus allowed for children who were truly problematic. Avraham would have Yishmael, and Yitzchak would have Eisav. We can be sure that even Avraham and Yitzchak’s wayward children were born with unbelievable spiritual energy and strength. The wicked ways of Yishmael and Eisav were thereby doubly tragic, in that they used so much potential for the service of evil (Yishmael did repent, however, later in life).
In fact, classical commentaries teach that these bad sons actually corrupted their fathers’ own unique paths of divine service. Avraham served Hashem especially through the prism of kindness, and so his son’s greatest deficiency was one of perverted kindness; Yishmael was an adulterer. Yitzchak fulfilled his role of acting through ‘strength’, and so his deficient child corrupted this trait; Esav murdered and ‘lives by the sword’.
Yaakov, the third link in the chain, became ‘the choicest of the Avot’ while successfully harmonizing the two special traits of his forebears. Hence, a product of Kindness and Strength emerged: ‘Tiferet’, or ‘Beauty/Splendor.’
From his particular vantage point, then, Yaakov would therefore father only righteous children- and thus establish the nation that could only be formed of complete virtue.
The Shem MiShmuel quotes a kabalistic idea: the Avot, each through his own trait, corrected the spiritual damage that had been done by Adam Harishon’s sin. According to this deep idea, Adam’s eating of the Tree of Knowledge was the equivalent of violating the three major sins for which one must give his life rather than commit: murder, adultery, and idol worship.
Each of the Avot, through his unique path of service, rectified the equivalent of one of the three sins.
Let’s examine the impact of our forefathers’ holy lives.
We can understand that Avraham’s purity counteracted adultery.* Yitzchak and his total self-sacrifice (particularly at the Akeidah, when he was willing and happy to give you his life for God) obviously negated idol-worship. Yaakov counteracted the dimension of murder by never even accidentally wasting seed (see Rashi, Vayeitzei). In this way, he was completely removed from any form of destruction of human life. This intense connection to life- a life of holiness- is reflected by a famous (though enigmatic) Talmudic statement:
Yaakov Avinu did not die.
-Gemara Taanit, 5b
Although we would need to spend more time in order to really understand this axiom, we can at least take a basic point from it: Yaakov’s life of purity elevated him to the point where his soul, his spirit, lived on- even more so than did others’.
With this perspective of the Avot, we can also understand the events that they needed to experience. Avraham, in order to fully correct adultery, was the one who had to go to Egypt (Parashat Lech Lecha)- a land full of adultery- and to remain pure even there. Yitzchak, in his intense ‘strength’, had to go to the Land of the Pelishtim, a nation full of scoffers and light-headed deniers of God’s power. Yaakov, who encompassed both of their characteristics, had to work through everything: the murderous intentions of Eisav, the mockery of Lavan- and the capture and rape of his daughter Dinah by Shechem. [The Shem Mishmuel connects things differently here, but I believe the following approach is simpler.] Eisav represented murder, while Lavan opposed service of Hashem through his idols. Lastly, the violation of Dinah was also an attempt to infuse impurity into B’nei Israel. The national significance of this episode is alluded to in the language of Yaakov’s children:
‘Such a thing must not be done in Yisrael.’
[The destruction of Shechem by Shimon and Levi in reaction to Dinah’s abduction was therefore a rejection of those impure forces- a rejection that would resurface centuries later…when the Jews went to war with the nation whose officers violated engaged girls.]
So, Yaakov’s perfect service of God in the aforementioned situations effected a microcosmic spiritual cleansing of all dimensions.
Now, after Yaakov successfully overcame these tribulations, remaining holy throughout, he would- unknowingly- encounter the most difficult of challenges…
We may now return to answer our earlier questions concerning Yaakov’s quest for tranquility.
Yaakov sought tranquility after he had passed the tests that had perfected him, believing he had reached the spiritual level that he was meant to: harmonizing kindness and strength, and therefore sought to complete his life by serving God from within that elevated plateau. Of course, he did not seek relaxation or rest; his hope of tranquility was in fact an expression of tremendous spiritual achievement!
Despite Yaakov’s great intentions, though, he was unaware that there was another, higher level in store for him: one that he would reach through the ordeal of Yosef…
Yaakov lost his Ruach Hakodesh- his Divine Inspiration- when Yosef went missing (see Rashi, Vayigash). Yaakov thought that this was because he had failed in his mission, because Yosef had been killed- and because, he suspected, the brothers had killed him. The Nation could never be built now, and he would not have any eternal reward. Everything- his intense Torah study, his unbelievable struggles with his brother and father-in-law, his legendary honesty and purity- had been for nothing! Now, Hashem had left him; Yaakov seemed to be left with nothing to hope or live for.
Yet…incredibly…Yaakov continued. Even though he had been denied any share in the World to Come, he maintained his righteousness, continued to keep and study the Torah in all of its details, and did not stop serving God for an instant. And, unbeknownst to him, by serving God completely for the sake of God in this way for 22 years, Yaakov passed a final test.
This, then, is why Hashem had made the special arrangement with Yaakov regarding the World to Come- as a test! Would he serve Hashem even under these conditions, without hope for any gain for himself whatsoever? The answer, of course, was ‘yes’. Yaakov thereby attained a tremendous new spiritual level- that of Yisrael. (He had been given that name connoting extreme holiness earlier, but he had now brought it from potential to reality.)
The holiness that he had expressed until now within his service of Hashem was now magnified and transformed into one that transcended everything else: devotion to God without anything to gain.
And he realized the import of his devotion after reuniting with Yosef after 22 years:
‘Now I can die…’
In the story of Chanukah, a group of righteous people fought those who threatened what really mattered: their ability to serve Hashem. Without any realistic hope for victory, they did what they believed was right. The Maccabees did not concern themselves with the improbability of defeating the Greeks, because their actions were it for the sake of God. Winning and losing was irrelevant to the devoted Jews of that time, because they cared only about upholding the honor of God.
May we learn from Yaakov, from the Maccabees, and from all of those in our history who served Hashem no matter the circumstances- and brought light into the world.
May the light of Chanukah continue to shine within us long after the holiday.
Have a great Shabbat!
*One opinion in the Midrash states that Avraham never really looked at his own wife Sarah well enough to know how beautiful she was- and only became aware of it after accidentally seeing her reflection in the water. (This lofty conduct is difficult to fathom, and is beyond the scope of this discussion.)
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.