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Vayeshev 5782 - The Importance of Questions

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One of my favorite few days of the year, are the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of Thanksgiving weekend. Why? Because for me it’s the one holiday when I don’t have to work. It’s an opportunity to clear my head a little and to spend time with family. And as our parsha opens this week, Chazal point out that Yaakov was looking for a little peace and quiet as well. “And Yaakov settled in the land of his father, the land of Canaan.”


Chazal, picking up on the relatively superfluous nature of telling us that Yaakov was living in the Land of Canaan, make the following statement:

ביקש יעקב לישב בשלוה, קפץ עליו רוגזו של יוסף.ט צדיקים מבקשים לישב בשלוה אומר הקב"ה לא דיין לצדיקים מה שמתוקן להם לעולם הבא, אלא שמבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה:

Yaakov wanted to live with a little peace and quiet, and at that moment, the challenges of Yosef and his brothers begin.


And continues the medrash: The righteous want to live quietly, and Hashem tells them: “Is it not enough that the world to come is prepared for them, but they also wanted to live peacefully in THIS world!?”


And the medrash is somewhat startling. Yaakov Avinu has experienced more tzaros, more challenges at this point in his life than multiple people experience in their lifetimes: He had to run from his life from his brother. His married life was turned on its head by his father-in-law. His wife passes away young during childbirth. His daughter is kidnapped and assaulted, and his sons go on a murderous rampage in response. Is it so terrible that Yaakov wants a little time to live quietly for a short time?


Rav Moshe Feinstein in his sefer Drash Moshe argues that Chazal intended to teach a deeper lesson here. Of course, Yaakov Avinu had been through so much, and it was fair that he wanted a break. However, says Rav Moshe, when it comes to the chinuch of our children, there is no time when we are truly “off” and no time when we “retire”. Throughout their childhood, we partner with our children’s shul and school to make sure the messages that are being taught are consistent and strong. We do not leave the chinuch of our children to others. As they grow older and go off “on their own” we never truly leave them on their own, as they continue to need our encouragement and guidance. Hence, argue Chazal, when it came to his children, Yaakov’s desire “Leishev B’shalva” was not going to be an option.


Rav Nissan Alpert offers a different insight. He writes that what chazal are emphasizing here is that while we oftentimes prefer “leishev b’shalva”, to live a quiet, unassuming life, with our own “inner peace”, if there remains a lack of shalom within Am Yisrael, then no Jew can really feel b’shalom.  There will be times when we, as a nation, can experience a respite from our enemies from the outside. But when it comes to our continued pursuit of Ahavas Yisrael, there is no time for a break until that issue is solved.


Rav Adin Even-Yisrael Steinsaltz offers a profound insight into the issue of our desire to find Shalom V’Shalva, peaceful tranquility in life. He points out that in our world, one of the most sought-after commodities is “peace of mind”. People may call it different things: Happiness, fulfillment, meaning. We are all filled to different degrees with insecurities and doubts about ourselves. And there is nothing we want more than to feel a sense of calm and serenity that we are whole, that we are living a good, purposeful life.


To a certain extent, argues Rav Steinsaltz, a life of Torah gives us just that. A life that is structured by halacha allows an individual to pursue that which he or she values and to stay away from that which is not part of one’s value system. Endeavoring to find success in living such a life can give a person a certain sense of fulfillment and even a certain calm. I know what I am living for.


But even while this is true, if you had to find a theme throughout our halachic system, and really throughout Jewish thought, the one issue that comes back over and over is the issue of QUESTIONS. Rav Yannai writes in Pirkei Avos 4:16:  “We don’t hold in our hands why the evil live a calm life while the righteous suffer.”When we face the reality of so many situations in the world, say Chazal, we are left not with answers, but questions.

The Gemara in Brachos 64a writes: “Torah scholars don’t get a break not in this world and not the next.”


Apparently, somehow a world of questions and a world without rest is integral to what it means to be successful as a Jew. And, of course, anyone who lives life as a person of faith understands that it is difficult to live in this world. There are so many unanswerable questions, so many challenges, and difficulties. It is almost as if questions are part and parcel of our identity.


It is said that Eskimos have many different words that describe snow. It is no wonder considering that the environment of the Eskimo is lived almost entirely in snow. So, over time, they have developed a more nuanced appreciation and understanding for different types of snow. And, it can be argued, the same is true for the Jewish People and questions. If you study gemara, there are maybe 9 or 10 different ways the gemara will introduce a question: Ur’minhu, tiyuvta, kasha, and more. Why? Because we live in a world of questions, and we embrace the questions, so we have developed a nuanced approach to understanding all the different kinds of questions – even those for which we have no answer.


But why? Why are questions so fundamental to who we are as a people, so much so that one might argue that we THRIVE on questions? The answer is that to question is not to be weak, to question is to show a desire to understand more, to have a deeper, more nuanced understanding. In our tradition, it is the Talmid Chacham, the one with the MOST knowledge, who asks the MOST questions. To question is to be open to the possibility that I don’t yet understand, to have the humility to discover more about others, about ourselves, and about God and His world.


And this, argues Rav Steinsaltz, is what Chazal meant in our medrash. Yaakov wanted to live a life of peace and tranquility. Says HKBH: Yaakov, peace and tranquility, the calm and easy life is not what life is all about. Yes, it is necessary at times so that we can prepare ourselves for our next challenge, but calm and easy are not the ends, they are the means to continuing to pursue the next question, to overcoming the next challenge. But it is not because Hashem wants us to live a life of chaos and discomfort. Just the opposite, it is because He wants us to live a life where we continue to deepen our appreciation for the people around us and the world in which we live.


This approach may not offer us much solace when we are in the throes of a particularly difficult challenge or moment of questioning. Some questions seem too big and some mountains too difficult to scale. Nevertheless, perhaps the REASON we spend so much time in our schools, shuls, and homes ENCOURAGING questions, reminding our children and ourselves that questions give us more insight into the world and into ourselves, is so that when we experience moments of our greatest challenges, when we experience the BIG QUESTIONS, the challenge can feel a little less daunting.


It is in those moments that we are reminded that questions do not topple our faith, they are the bedrock of it.


So, is it so bad to enjoy the thanksgiving break as a chance to relax a little? I don’t think so. It is these short breaks that give us the strength to move forward afterwards, ready to address the next question.


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