By Rabbi Naftali Schiff
After a long time in exile with a significant number of struggles, Jacob finally returns to the land of his fathers to settle down, enjoy his family and retire. His tranquillity is short lived with the dramatic episode of the brothers’ animosity towards his beloved Joseph and his subsequent disappearance.
As with all the stories in the Torah, this is not just an account of a family dispute shrouded in the mists of time, rather there is a lesson here for each and every one of us.
The stories of the Torah are a medium to convey important life messages that can be appreciated on a number of different levels. Judaism teaches that we humans are a unique blend of body and soul. Our bodies seek comfort, while our souls strive for greatness.
This tension can often be felt in day to day life. We wake up in the morning and want to get up straight away for a productive new day, however we feel like staying in bed until mid-morning. Many of us start life with an aspiration to retire with a fortune by the age of 40 and relax for the next 80 years. As we mature, we realise that not only is that highly unlikely, but a life of inactivity is also undesirable. Like the angels on the ladder in Jacob’s dream, life is full of ups and downs; humans are called mehalchim – those who walk, and we are in perpetual motion.
The moment we stop, we start moving in the opposite direction and start to sink. That is why Jewish law is called halachah. It implies a constant mind-set of dynamic growth throughout life. The book of Job (5:7) tells us ‘man is born to toil’, we are put in this world to work, to develop ourselves, to embrace the challenges of life head on and to make a difference to the world.
If our primary goal in life is to seek comfort, then we are consigned to a life of (comfortable) mediocrity. As soon as Jacob tries to take it easy, he is faced with a new challenge.
Like all of us, Jacob does not choose his circumstances, but he realises that he does have the ability to choose how to respond to them. Hashem is telling him that life is a constant journey, a series of opportunities that bring with them the potential to achieve greatness.