It is often said that we Jews are a people of God-wrestlers. We struggle with the Divine and with the world, insisting that the world must become better than it is. We are doers, actors, a people with a mission to combat evil, to make life more perfect. This collective identity goes all the way back to our forefather Jacob, renamed Yisrael ("God-wrestler"). Right?
This week's parashah begins the story of Joseph, but first it looks back one last time at the life of Jacob. Here, a very different view of Jacob's identity emerges.
"Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had resided, in the land of Canaan" (Genesis 37:1). Rashi (in his commentary to the following verse) quotes a midrash that stretches the simple meaning of the words "Vayeshev Ya'akov " — "Jacob was settled" — to mean "Jacob desired to live in tranquility" (shalva).
Remember, this is Genesis 37, fully nine chapters after Jacob's midnight struggle with the angel, resulting in his new name and identity as Ya'akov/God-wrestler. Here is a picture of Jacob, at the end of his life, desiring nothing but to make peace with life as it is. Little does he know what drama still awaits him in his old age. Nonetheless, listen to Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev's reflections on our forefather's desire for serenity:
"In everything that the Blessed One brings us, one must receive it with tranquility and joy, as our Rabbis of blessed memory said: 'With all your might' (me'odecha) — In everything (middah) that God measures out (moded) to you, be very grateful (modeh), and say, 'All that the Merciful One does is for good,' and believe that there is in this great good, for evil cannot come from God. As Nachum Ish Gam-Zu, in the depths of his faith in the Blessed One said of everything, 'This, too (Gam zu), is for good.' In so doing, he sweetens the evil that has come upon him, and transforms it into compassion, making good from evil, raising the holy sparks within it…by virtue of his pure, faithful thought…This was the faith of Jacob our father…[quoting Rashi's comment], who always desired to live in peace and tranquility and to receive everything for good, even in times of fear…" (Kedushat Levi )
This teaching sounds so difficult, so foreign, so reflective of a faith not our own. Part of our mind may protest that this is Pollyanna-ish nonsense, protesting, "The world is filled with evil! What kind of faith is it that pretends that this does not exist?" Part of our mind may acknowledge the possibility of such a deep quality of trust in life but associate it with Christian faith or with Buddhist equanimity, not with Jewish activism and engagement with the world.
But here it is, in Rashi quoting a classical midrash, and in Chassidic teaching, a time-honored Jewish lesson holding up Jacob as a model of faith and equanimity. Perhaps it is more a function of Jewish history than of Jewish tradition that we are so attached to seeing ourselves as strugglers, combatants with life. For millennia, our collective experiences have conditioned us to be always on guard for the next fight or threat, leaving the search for peace and serenity to other, less endangered peoples. Looking around, there is ample evidence in our present experience — collective and individual — to justify such a view.
But our tradition teaches a very different orientation to life. Labor to perfect the world, fight on behalf of the underprivileged, stand with our people, yes. But our tradition challenges us, too, to cultivate a quieter place within, where serenity and deep trust in the world are possible, even when external challenges abound. Surely, life will continue to bring us evidence of evil and danger, and so, much work to do. Despite this, or because of it, we are asked to aspire to basic trust in the goodness of life, to profound faith in the availability of blessings, to the presence of holy sparks even in the darkest times.
The Torah, and life itself, will soon bring us more drama, more challenge, more occasion for struggle. This Shabbat, may we find inspiration from our forefather Jacob, the original Jewish God-wrestler, but also a model of inward peace, trust and serenity. Amen.