December 22, 2005
Over a Cliff
Parshat Vayeshev (Gensis 37:1- 44:17)
I once heard a colleague recount how, after lecturing about God, a man came up and told him that he was impressed with his lecture. He explained that although he wasn't personally observant and didn't attend synagogue, he had a close relationship with the Almighty.
This intrigued the rabbi who asked the man to elaborate. To his surprise, the man claimed that God had created miracles just for him.
Impressed with this comment the rabbi said, "Wow, you really must be special because God hasn't done this for anyone else that I know. Please tell me, what kind of miracle did He perform on your behalf?"
The man explained that it happened while cycling as a professional cyclist. On one of his tours in Europe he was cycling on a very steep hill in northern Italy, when an 18-wheeler came around the turn and pushed him off a cliff. As he was flying through the air he thought it was all over, but then he enjoyed a cushion landing with out a scratch.
"Rabbi," he said, "after that moment in my life I realized God loves me and ever since we have had a close relationship. "
After hearing the story, my colleague replied, "Your experience is awe-inspiring. But tell me, did you ever stop to think about who pushed you off the cliff in the first place?"
In this week's Torah portion we are challenged not only to think about the God of salvation but also about the God who creates those situations that make us realize that life can never be taken for granted. The opening sentence in the portion states, "And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father's sojourning, in the land of Canaan."
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) remarks that Rabbi Yochanan noted, "Whenever the word 'Vayeshev' (and he dwelt), is mentioned in the Torah, it portends anguish."
But what could Rabbi Yochanan have meant with this perplexing statement?
The classical medieval commentator, Rashi, explains that "Jacob wanted to dwell in peace and tranquility," but the Holy One challenged this request.
"The Holy One Blessed Be He, said, 'Is it not enough that he will enjoy eternal peace, in the next world, does he want tranquility and contentment in this life, too?"'
According to Rabbi Yochanan the word, "Vayeshev" signals that difficulties lie ahead because it implies complacency, contentment and a willingness to accept the status quo in exchange for "peace of mind." When this happens, life no longer is a challenge. Horizons shrink and vision narrows to the point where man can no longer achieve further greatness.
All real achievements in history occurred because there were discontented individuals who envisioned a better society. Just think for a moment about the great men and women of history, whether they were biblical heroes or heroines or great Americans such as the signers of the Declaration of Independence. None of these ever settled for an "old age pension." They weren't complacent. They recognized that difficulties represent as great a message from God as do miracles.
The great sin of our generation is the idolatry of complacency. We search for security and peace of mind. Gone is the challenge of creating a better tomorrow. The beauty of Judaism, however, is that it teaches us to avoid "Vayeshev," tranquility and a sense of peace, when it affects our spiritual lives. We must stress the need to climb a new mountain, to reach a new goal, to search for a new horizon.
No matter the situation, the Jew knows that acceptance of the status quo, the "Vayeshev" approach, portends anguish. Rather we must be sensitive to the push from God, for it awakens us to appreciate all the gifts that he bestows upon us.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin is spiritual leader of Young Israel of Century City.