Parshat Vayeshev begins with the words, “And Jacob sat (or dwelled)”. From this seemingly mundane phrase the sages teach (Breishis Raba 84): “When the righteous desire to live in tranquility, the Accuser comes (before G-d) and declares: Is it not enough (for the righteous) that they will receive their rewards in the World to Come; must they also request to dwell in this world in tranquility, he was punished with the troubles of Joseph.”
Amazing! All Jacob wanted was to settle down and raise a family in the way of Torah. What more could God ask of him? Here was a man beset with troubles from the very outset of his life (including in his mother’s womb)- the feud with Esau, the despicable treatment he received at Laban’s house, the rape of his daughter and the subsequent fear of attacks by the local gentiles after the daring liquidation of Shchem by his two sons. Didn’t he deserve at least at this stage to relax a little, learn Torah, and enjoy life?
However, it is exactly this outlook on life that the sages come to negate. And it is a concept we must drill into our hearts. The attainment of comfort, even if it is combined with a life of Torah and mitzvot, must not be the goal of the Jew. The real tranquility will be received in the World to Come. This world, by its very nature, is one of struggle and strife, and thus it is not the place designated for the achievement of comfort: “The days of the years in this life are 70 years, or, given strength, 80 years; but the best of them are trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness” (Psalms 90:10) The essence of a Jew is selfless devotion and self-sacrifice for G-d, His Torah, and His People.
My father, Rabbi Meir Kahane (may G-d avenge his blood) would frequently bless newlyweds with this blessing. Already under the “chupah”, he would tell the couple that he does not wish for them to live in tranquility and comfort but rather they should always fulfill their tasks as Jews with “msirus nefesh” (self-sacrifice). This strange blessing often startled many of the guests. However, it was the message that the Rav continually stressed – a Jew must give of himself to sanctify God’s Name. This includes his time, his money, and sometimes, even his life.
This lesson is quite relevant to the holiday of Hanukkah that draws near. One who ponders the sequence of events of the Hanukkah story may be confounded by an enigma: What were the Jews doing before Matitiyahu and his sons began the rebellion? During the period that the Greek entourage traveled from village to village to force the Jews to sacrifice pigs to their idols, why did no one else rebel until then? Were there no other righteous Jews in Israel? This is exactly the point. What differentiated Matitiyahu and his sons from the other righteous Jews was their willingness for “mesirut nefesh”. Surely there were many Jews who observed the commandments, but they placed their personal comfort and safety above their Jewish mission and destiny.
The implications for today are obvious, and if there were only a few Maccabees back then, there are even less “Maccabees” today. The slogan “never again” was never intended to mean that another Holocaust could never again occur. It meant that Jews would never again sit quietly, in tranquility, while other Jews are suffering. It meant that Jews would do everything in their power, even at great personal cost, to help their brethren. Let us pray that the observant Jew, who observes with great vigor each and every halachic stringency, will grasp this simple and valuable lesson of “and Jacob sat”.