Thursday, December 06, 2012

be careful what you wish for

Rashi comments on the opening of our parsha: "Ya’akov desired to live in peace but the troubles of Yosef sprang up. The righteous desire tranquility, but G-d said, 'Is it not enough that they receive the world to come; they also desire this world?!'”

What’s wrong with wanting a little peace and quiet? Ya’akov certainly had his share of troubles throughout his life. Didn’t he deserve a break? The Ksav Sofer uses the following gemara to shed light on the issue:

The gemara (Ta’anis 25) relates that R’ Chanina ben Dosa was so poor that he had literally nothing. He decided to daven that Hashem grant him an advance on a small portion of his reward in olam ha’ba. His prayer was answered and he received a golden table leg from Heaven. Later, he dreamt that all the tzadikim were sitting in olam ha’ba around their tables and he and his wife were sitting at a wobbly table missing one leg. The potential future cost was too great to contemplate, and so R’ Chanina davened that Hashem withdraw his gift.

Surely R’ Chanina must have realized that you don’t get something for nothing – the receipt of a share of his portion in the world to come in advance obviously would mean he would lack that share in the future. Why did it come as surprise that the golden table leg he received in this world would mean he would have one less gold table leg in the next?

Every gift Hashem provides is meant to be used to better ourselves and the world. To some degree the poor person has it easy – he cannot be judged or challenged whether he gave enough to charity because he barely can make ends meet for himself. Not so the rich person who has the means to help others. R’ Chanina at first thought that the test of wealth would be easier to bear than the test of poverty. He asked for a share of his portion in the world to come in advance thinking that he would be able to increase, not diminish, his future reward by giving charitably with his fortune. Much like a businessman who takes a loan to finance the growth and expansion of his enterprise, R’ Chanina thought he could “invest” his future reward in expanding his opportunities to help others and increase his future “earnings.” The reality is that most plans to grow a new business do not succeed; the challenge of using opportunity wisely and to its fullest potential is not so easily passed. R’ Chanina ended up reconsidering his “loan” and asking that he be returned to poverty.

Ya’akov Avinu was not looking for peace and tranquility because he was ready for retirement. To the contrary, he thought that peace and tranquility would provide him with the opportunity to do even more good than he was able to when dealing with the challenges of Lavan and Eisav. However, the obligations that come with greater opportunity and means are far greater than a person realizes. Hashem therefore rejected his request.

The assumption of the Ksav Sofer, which is probably how we've all learned this Rashi since grade school, is that Hashem was not willing to grant Ya'akov's request. The Sefas Emes, however, suggests an innovative contrarian reading.  Hashem in fact did grant Ya'akov's request. You want peace and tranquility, I'll give you peace and tranquility -- but you have to pay the price.  "Shalvah" is achieved not by avoiding, but by overcoming the trials and tribulations that life deals out.  Only by proving himself capable of dealing with the challenge of the conflict between Yosef and his brothers could Ya'akov earn the ultimate reward of serenity even in olam ha'zeh. 


  1. Anonymous12:11 AM

    R' Chanina's hava amina, as shown to him on the mountain of his mind: the test of poverty, which he is on track to pass, earns a golden table of volume x in olam ha'ba; the more difficult test of wealth earns a golden table of size x+, that is larger than the first by at least the volume of one smaller table leg; if he, R' Chanina ben Dosa,
    accepts the leg from off the table that he currently has coming for the use of its gold in olam ha'zeh, he'll pass the test of wealth & so merit a table of volume x+, minus the volume of the one leg that he'd received already, that is, a 3-legged table of (at least the original) volume x, where he & his wife will be able to enjoy their gains on an equal social footing with others**, happily ever after...

    **a social comparison that resonates with the one found on Bava Basra 75a, that each individual will be burnt by the canopy of his neighbor; such descriptions support the opinion, by kal v'chomer, that the messianic era will be the same as the current one but for Jewish soveriegnty over the land of Israel: if in olam ha'ba, which is more elevated than the messianic age, human nature isn't atered (social comparisons can still sting), how much moreso will teva remain unchanged in the messianic age...

    1. Anonymous8:56 AM

      "atered" should read 'altered'

      to be more explicit-- social comparisons are still MADE, &
      "can still sting"; of course, such gemaras may reflect the
      sensitivities of their speakers, rather than the situation in
      olam ha'ba, or may simply number among the many descriptions used to keep people in line/submissive-- consider how you'll feel, how unfavorably you'll compare, in olam ha'ba, if you act like this or that, here & now (if you're too dissatisfied
      with poverty, & naggingly wish for a golden opporutnity...)