Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan. — Genesis 37:1
The Torah portion for this week, Vayeishev, which means “and he lived,” is from Genesis 37:1—40:23, and the Haftorah is from Amos 2:6—3:8.
The Rabbi of Kelm (19th century) was known to say: “A person who has mastered peace of mind has gained everything.” Jacob’s one request when he returned to the Holy Land was to live with peace of mind. This week’s Torah portion begins, “Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed . . .” The title of the portion, Vayeishev, “and he lived,” can also mean “and he settled.” From this verse the rabbis learn that Jacob asked God for the ability to be “settled” after the decades of turbulence he had endured.
Here’s the problem: This portion deals with the most unsettling episode of Jacob’s life! We read about the fallout between Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, and his brothers, which culminated in Joseph being sold to nomads and Jacob being told that his beloved son was dead. Could there be a more inappropriate phrase than “and he settled” for a selection that describes total upheaval in Jacob’s life?
The Jewish sages teach that when Jacob asked God for tranquility, that’s when the rift between Joseph and his brothers began. Because Jacob wanted tranquility, God sent him rivalry! How does this make any sense?
When God caused more tumult in Jacob’s life, it wasn’t because He denied Jacob’s request; He was granting it. It could only be through the experience of extreme turbulence that Jacob could learn to experience constant tranquility.
If you have ever watched a surfer ride the waves of a roaring ocean, you know it doesn’t matter how turbulent the waters are. The waves rise and fall, they gather, build and crash. But an experienced surfer will be still and calm, unmoved from his place. One must learn to ride the crest of the waves with utter tranquility.
Sure, God could have granted Jacob’s request for peace with the absence of any turmoil. But that would be a conditional peace – one that could be broken at any moment. God wished to give His beloved servant an even greater tranquility, one that was deeper and more stable.
God wanted Jacob to learn that tranquility comes from within, not from the conditions without. Once Jacob could go through the worst of everything, he could learn to weather anything. Jacob had earned a tranquility that would last for the rest of his life.
Maybe you have noticed that some people have it easy in life, yet they are in constant tumult on the inside. Other people have their share of problems, yet they are completely calm. Judaism has a long-standing tradition of practicing meditation, connecting to God in peace and tranquility. It should be the goal of every believer to maintain a place of faith and calm even in the most unsettling of situations.
What can you do today that will move you closer to that goal of faith and calm in the turbulence of life?
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President