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 “tree?”
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