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Vayeishev: Don't Settle

There is a troubling Rashi at the beginning of this week’s Parsha that, when explored in depth, reveals an important spiritual lesson and psychological truth. The Pasuk (37:1-2) recounts “Vayeishev Yaakov… Bi’eretz Kinaan,” Yaakov settled down in the land of Canaan, “Eileh toldos Yaakov, Yosef ben Sheva Esrei Shana,” and these were Yaakov’s children – Yosef, who was seventeen years old. Rashi notes that there is a reason Yaakov’s settling in Canaan is juxtaposed with the mention of Yosef. He explains (37:2), “Bikesh Yaakov Leishev Bishalva, Kafatz Alav Rogzo Shel Yosef.” Yaakov wanted to dwell in peace and tranquility, and immediately Hashem brought upon him the whole ordeal regarding Yosef and his brothers.

A simple reading of this Rashi is quite troubling. Yaakov had, until now, a very chaotic and challenging life. He had fled from his murderous brother, worked for Lavan for many years, was tricked into marrying Leah, worked an additional seven years for Rachel, fled Lavan’s house, confronted Esav at risk to his and his family’s safety and very lives, his beloved wife Rachel died in childbirth… and then his daughter was kidnapped and violated and he only barely escaped an all-out war after his sons avenged their sister by killing out the entire city of Shechem! It is quite reasonable that Yaakov would want some peace and tranquility after all of this!

Why does Hashem take issue with Yaakov’s desire for a more peaceful existence to the point that He seems to almost purposefully bring more stress into Yaakov’s life as a result? Was this a punishment for Yaakov wanting a little rest? How can we understand what Rashi is telling us?

I recently had the pleasure of going on a breathtakingly beautiful hike in the Green Mountain National Forest in southern Vermont. In addition to getting back out into the world during these isolative and uncertain times, this getaway was also a much-needed break to rest my mind, a chance to reenergize my body and invigorate my soul. After a grueling yet thrilling climb, we reached the summit and stepped out onto a cliff overlooking what felt in that moment to be the whole entire world. The view was spectacular; mountains, some even snow-capped, all around us, green valleys below us littered with orange and red, the last remnants of autumn. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun shone brightly, its warm rays dancing across my face as I gazed out onto the scenery. My whole body felt elevated in that moment, lighter than air, and I had the distinct urge to stay there, in that moment, in that very place, forever.

And then my phone rang.

It was a psychiatrist calling from a pediatric ICU to discuss an adolescent patient of mine who had been admitted there following an attempted overdose. Thankfully, my patient was okay, and through various phone calls and ongoing consultation throughout the day, things began to stabilize. Though crisis management on a mountaintop wasn’t exactly how I’d envisioned my break from reality, reality kept on keeping on, as it tends to do.

It struck me in that moment that to be fully awake and alive in this world means to accept that we may not ever be able to fully pause or turn off the world. While it is imperative for our mental and physical health that we take breaks, give our bodies a chance to rest, and enjoy some time off once in a while, this is not the end goal. Rest and relaxation can help us to rejuvenate, but all too often in today’s society we find that people lose sight of the difference between the end and the means. Everyone seems to be living their lives waiting for the moment they can finally stop – we live for the next vacation, the next holiday, we work so we can finally retire. And though psychologically we need to be kind to our bodies and our brains, we need sleep and nourishment and time to unwind, we also need to be moving, activating, contributing, and building.

When we stop, when we stagnate, we lose momentum and direction and can feel sad, low, and useless. The less we do, the less effective we feel, and the more despondent we can become. This is the principle behind behavioral activation, one of the foremost evidence-based treatments for depression. We must be actively involved in our lives to gain a sense of mastery and fulfillment. Though rest and relaxation help us to continue being active participants in our lives, there is also a danger in over-idealizing the notion of settling down.

Over the years, I’ve heard from several mentors that spiritual growth is like a downward escalator: if you’re not actively moving upward, you are by default going down. When it comes to spiritual wellbeing, we must be actively striving to grow or we are likely instead to decline. Ultimately, rest and relaxation are means to the greater ends in life – growth and contributing to the world in a meaningful way. As we’ve discussed, taking the time to pause and reflect is imperative, and it is also important that those moments of reflection allow for forward movement.

Rav Wolbe notes in his writings on this week’s parsha that we grow exponentially more through adversity than through tranquility, through activity rather than stagnation or inactivity. This is why Hashem is less than pleased with Yaakov’s desire to settle into a life of peace and tranquility. It is not, G-d forbid, that Hashem begrudges Yaakov the peace he is seeking, or that He takes some sort of vindictive pleasure in denying it to him. Rather, Hashem wants to ensure that Yaakov continues to grow, and that the future of Klal Yisrael, our future, is guaranteed. Yaakov’s life and spiritual development is far from over when he settles in Canaan; in fact, in more ways than one, this moment is just another beginning. It is only through the story of Yosef, his conflict with his brothers, and his subsequent sale and journey to Egypt that the rest of Yaakov’s legacy can begin to unfold.

If our goal is growth and development, if we desire to live our lives wide-awake, we must learn to appreciate the peacefulness within the stress of every mundane moment. We are not necessarily meant to settle. In fact, we begin to wither when we pause for too long. It is not easy to activate ourselves when we feel stuck – sometimes, life itself will throw exactly what we need at us to keep us awake and moving. And other times, we may need support from others to gently push us back into motion.

In this stop-and-start year of stilted moments, life may feel as though it is entirely on hold to some degree. While aspects of working from home or refraining from socializing may have felt like a much-needed break at first, prolonged immobility and idleness can make it hard to bounce back. This week, recognize the ways in which the means may have become the end goal itself and consider where you are stuck or stagnating. Think about what kind of rest or shift in perspective or means of activation you need to move forward, and reach out for help if you need it. Whatever you do, try not to settle.

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