An NY Times op-ed this week piqued my interest. David Brooks reported on research that explores why elders smile. He writes: “When researchers ask people to assess their own well-being, people in their 20s rate themselves highly. Then there’s a decline as people get sadder in middle age, bottoming out around age 50. But then happiness levels shoot up, so that old people are happier than young people. The people who rate themselves most highly are those ages 82 to 85.”
Contrast that article to this week’s torah portion where we find Yaakov Avinu – the patriarch Jacob – entering a new phase in his life. He has an epiphany: after laboring many years to support his family he decides it is finally time for him to settle down and relax. He finds comfort in the realization that he is uniquely blessed by children who all follow his ideology. Despite his anxiety and angst at the hands of his nemesis Eisav and his brother-in-law Lavan, he nevertheless considers himself fortunate and begins to make retirement plans (perhaps even book a Caribbean cruise). Lo and behold there is a curve in the road and the downward spiral seems unstoppable and overwhelming. Sibling rivalries take hold, jealousies begin to erupt, and schemes begin to take shape in ascertaining the best means to eliminate Joseph. Slowly Jacob’s dreams dissolve into the abyss as he sees what he believes to be irrefutable evidence of the demise of his favorite son, Joseph.
Some sages are disturbed by Jacob’s quest for serenity by exclaiming that there is more than ample time for rest and relaxation in the world to come. Yet other sages determine the tranquility that Jacob desired was not a longing for idleness, rather a pursuit of loftier goals. He was choosing to channel his energy away from the daily grind of business and commerce into a greater focus and concentration on spiritual matters. He gave over the reins of his business empire to his children and wanted to dedicate his life to study and academia. The first century commentator, Unkelos (yes, he was a convert), explains the verse that states: and Jacob loved Joseph for he was his ben zekunim – for he was his son born in his old age by reinterpreting the word zekunim to refer to wisdom and not old age. In other words, Jacob loved Joseph for he was capable of grasping the depth of Torah and their strong relationship was due primarily to their love of study and pursuit of excellence. While the other brothers were off in the pursuit of worldly success, Jacob and Joseph spent time delving into spiritual intricacies.
Some commentaries explain that the brothers’ conflict with Joseph was borne out of their fear of losing their spiritual legacy. They assumed that Jacob’s relationship with Joseph may cause them to lose their father’s blessing and be cast aside. They assumed they were in jeopardy because they saw their uncle and great uncle were cast aside and the legacy was limited to a single descendant. To protect their spiritual inheritance they were inclined to inject a self-defense clause that justified any and all actions that mitigated their fears.
Do I know the true motivation behind the enmity of the brothers or why Jacob loved Joseph and made his special coat? My theories may be wrong and may have painted an incorrect picture of the family dynamic. Yet the point of this article is not to solidify or garner support for my positions; it is merely get in the spirit of Chanukah and to light the candle of illumination. My hope is that we open our minds and realize that our preconceived views may or may not be an accurate representation of reality.
Rabbi Jack Engel
Halachah of the week
It is better for those who are frightened leaving Chanukah candles burning in your residences to use an electric menora. However please be aware that led bulbs may not be used as this new technology does not heat up and is not related to fire which is required for the mitzva.