Learning To Enjoy The Struggle
Towards the end of last week's parsha (Vayishlach), the Torah describes
how Yaakov arrived at the home of his father, Yitzchak, after having
spent more than twenty years in exile in fear of his brother Eisav. The
Torah then interrupts the narrative, and describes briefly the offspring
of Eisav and their settling in the land of Seir, where they succeeded in
establishing tribal chiefs, and ultimately kings. At the beginning of
parshas Vayeishev, the Torah returns to discussing the offspring of Yaakov.
Rashi offers a number of reasons to explain why the Torah abruptly
interrupts the narrative of Yaakov with the passage of Eisav and his
descendants. One of his explanations is that the Torah is trying to
accentuate the relative ease with which Eisav managed to establish
himself in his land, in contrast to the difficulties and problems Yaakov
and his descendants would have to go through before they would likewise
settle themselves. In Rashi's words:
"And Yaakov settled:" Yaakov hoped to dwell in tranquillity. Instead,
the ordeal of Yosef (and ultimately the Egyptian exile) sprung upon him.
The righteous seek to dwell in tranquillity. Said the Holy One, Blessed is
He,"Isn't it enough the reward I have prepared for the righteous in the
World to Come, yet they seek tranquillity in this world as well!"
It's hard to read this Rashi without feeling a touch uncomfortable. Who
doesn't want to live with a bit of comfort and tranquillity? And if even
the righteous Yaakov didn't deserve it, what chance do we have? Also,
don't Chazal (our Sages) say that there are many mitzvos for which the
"principal" reward is reserved for Olam Ha-ba (the World to Come), yet
their "fruits" can be enjoyed in this world (see Mishna Peah 1:1)? Is it
possible Yaakov didn't have in his repertoire of mitzvos some of those for
which he would be permitted to eat of their "fruits" without damaging
The sefer Nechmad ve-Na'im explains that the reward we receive for
mitzvos is really two-pronged. For a mitzvah itself it is impossible to
give reward in this world. A mitzvah is spiritual and sublime, and to
attempt to "pay it off" with material reward is an insult to the integrity
of the mitzvah. Sublime actions can only be rewarded with the sublime
reward that awaits the righteous in the After World. This is with regard to
rewarding the mitzvah proper.
With every mitzvah, however, there is some degree of struggle and
contention. After the sin of Adam, man was given a perverse nature
(yetzer hara) that, when combined with the apparent appeal of material
bliss and physical satisfaction, makes leading a spiritual life a constant
battle. Everyone has their struggles, and different "strokes" of passion,
selfishness, and obsession, seem to do the trick for different folks. The
common denominator is that material bliss always seems just a little
closer and more appealing than its spiritual counterpart. This is the
nature of our test in this world.
It is for the struggle against our own laziness, desires, and perversity
that we receive this-worldly reward. And justly so: The vices and allure of
this world are what makes things so hard, so one who overcomes them
deserves to be repaid in similar.
It appears, then, that when the Mishna (Avos 5:22) exclaims, "The reward
corresponds to the difficulty," it refers to the "fruits" we are permitted
to enjoy in this world, for which the harder they (the mitzvos) come, the
more we receive.
But why not Yaakov? To understand this requires us to examine the
nature of our perversity and the human condition. Have you ever been
so busy that you've completely forgotten to eat? Why is it then that on
a fast day, by the time we've finished davening shacharis, we're already
tired and hungry? Chazal refer to this phenomenon as pas be-salo, bread
in the basket. As long as our lunch-bag is there on the table, and we
know we can open it up and eat whenever we want to, we can
sometimes stave off our hunger for long periods of time. When we
know that the kitchen is closed and the basket's empty - and there will
be no refills today - we feel the hunger of the empty basket long before
that of our stomachs.
The Talmud (Kiddushin 31a) says that for this reason, one who performs
a mitzvah because he's obligated to do so is greater than one who does
so voluntarily - something which at first glance seems counter-intuitive.
Going back to the analogy of fasting, have you ever noticed the ease
with which young boys seem to be able to fast before their bar-mitzvahs,
in comparison to the tiredness and difficulty they experience once
they've come of age? Pre bar mitzvah, they don't have to fast. If worst
comes to worst, they know they can just pop a tasty morsel in their
mouths and relieve their hunger. It's when they know there's no way out
that psychology begins to play with their minds, causing them to doubt
their ability to finish, and to feel hungry and tired along the way.
This is one aspect of mitzvah performance that did not exist for the Avos
ha-kedoshim, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Although our Sages tell us
(Kiddushin 82a) that they studied and kept the Torah before it was given
to us by Hashem at Har Sinai, they did so voluntarily. Keeping Torah only
became a must once it was officially given and accepted. This is why,
explain mefarshim (commentators), we sometimes find the Avos "bending
the rules" in ways we couldn't (such as Yaakov marrying two sisters);
because their observance was voluntary, they had the ability to "overrule"
certain laws when they saw fit to do so. We have no such leniency.
Now we can understand why it is that although Yaakov surely received
great reward for his mitzvos in Olam Ha-ba, he was not granted the gift
of eating their "fruits" in this world; his reward was only for the mitzvah
proper, something that can never be repaid in a physical sense. We, in
contrast, while surely no more than dust at the feet of the Avos, it is the
struggle that sets us apart and gives us the possibility of earning some
sense of tranquillity and material comfort, which we will hopefully use to
further our commitment to Torah study and mitzvah performance.
Every investor would like and investment that keeps his initial deposit
safe and sound, while offering handsome dividends on an ongoing basis.
We invest our lives and energy in Torah and mitzvos. So the next time
we find ourselves once-again having to deal with the yetzer hara, and
doing what we know we should be doesn't come as easily or as
peacefully as we might have hoped, we can console ourselves - and
perhaps even enjoy the struggle - if we remember that it is only because
of the struggle that we will merit to enjoy the blessings of this world,
while our principal remains intact and complete and awaits us in the
World to Come.
Have a good Shabbos.
****** This week's publication has been generously sponsored by Mr.
Zalman Deutsch, Mr. Isaac Reichman, and Mr. Pinchas Goldstein, in
honour of the anniversary of the rescue of the Holy Rebbe of Satmar, R'
Yoel Teitelbaum zt"l zy"a, 21 Kislev. ******
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Torah.org