(This post is a different treatment of the same themes as “Mas’ei — the Journey as a Name of G-d“.)
וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן.
And Yaaqov settled in the land of his fathers’ dwelling, in the land of Canaan.(איוב ט) “אם שוט ימית פתאום…”אנטונינוס שאל את רבינו, אמר לו: מהו דכתיב: אם שוט ימית פתאום?אמר רבי: גזור דיסב מאה מגלבין, והוא יהיבין מאה דינרים, דין סכום לדין, ודין סכום לדין, ולא מפקין מידיה כלום, כענין הזה מלעיג על המוכה. (שם) למסת נקיים ילעג.אמר רבי אחא: בשעה שהצדיקים יושבים בשלוה, ומבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה, השטן בא ומקטרג. אמר: לא דיין שהוא מתוקן להם לעולם הבא, אלא שהם מבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה. תדע לך שהוא כן, יעקב אבינו ע”י שבקש לישב בשלוה בעוה”ז, נזדווג לו שטנו של יוסף.
“If the scourge slay suddenly[, it will mock the tragedy of the blameless.]” (Iyov 9:23)
Anthony asked our rebbe [R' Yehudah haNasi]. He said so him “What does it mean, ‘If the scourge slay suddenly…’?”
Rebbe answered: [Say] it was decreed that he would have 100 lashes and he would get 100 dinar [for his suffering]. But only the full amount [of lashes] matches the full amount [of pay], and the full amount [of pay] matches the full amount [of lashes]. Like this they mock the battered — “it will mock the tragedy of the blameless”.
Rav Acha said: “When the righteous dwell in tranquillity or desire to dwell in tranquillity in this world, the satan comes and accuses. He says: ‘Is it not enough that which is prepared for them in the World to Come not enough, that they seek to dwell in tranquility in this world?’ You should know that this is so, for Yaaqov avinu sought to dwell in serenity in this world and the ‘Satan’ of Yosef attached himself to Yaakov: ‘Yaakov settled down’, but ‘I had no tranquility, no quiet, no rest, and trouble came’ (Iyov 3:26):
- ‘I had no tranquility’—from Esav;
- ‘No quiet’—from Lavan;
- ‘No rest’—from Dina;
- ‘And trouble came’—the trouble of Yosef.”
– Medrash Rabba ad loc (84:3), quoted by Rashi
Why is it so terrible that Yaaqov wanted to rest? He finally got out from behind his conflicts with Eisav and with Lavan, would it have been so bad had Hashem just given him a few years of peace?
Rashi quotes Rav Acha. The righteous are getting the world to come, that should be enough for them. The reason why, though, is more inherent in Rebbe’s words. A person is in this world to accomplish something. No matter how much that person accomplishes, getting only most of the way there isn’t getting the job done.
בן זומא אומר: … איזהו עשיר? השמח בחלקו. שנאמר: (תהלים קכח:ב): “יגיע כפיך כי תאכל אשריך וטוב לך.” “אשריך” — בעולם הזה. “וטוב לך” — לעולם הבא.
Ben Zoma would say: … Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot. As it is said: ‘When you eat from the toil of your hands, you are fortunate and it is good for you’ (Psalms 128:2). ‘You are fortunate’ — in this world; ‘and it is good for you’ — in the World to Come.
– Avos 4:1
When speaking publicly, I often use this story from the Kotzker Rebbe, a Chassidic master known for his sharp wit.
The Kotzker Rebbe once asked his students: There are two people on a ladder, one on the fourth rung, and another on the 10th, which one is higher?
The book where I saw this thought doesn’t record his students’ answers. I assume some recognized it as a trick question, and answered that it was the one on the fourth, some answered the 10th figuring the rebbe was leading them somewhere, and others were silent. But the rebbe’s answer was succinct, “It depends who is climbing the ladder, and who is going down.”
What is relevant isn’t our state at any point in time, it’s how we’re changing.
Given that idea, I think ben Zoma’s notion of my lot in life is the path Hashem placed before me to travel. Not where I stand now physically, socially, psychologically or spiritually. Not even where G-d is leading me. My lot is the trip along the way. The whole roller coaster ride, the peaks and the dips.
My lot isn’t what I have at any particular point in time. Not in the physical sense, although someone who makes $25,000 a year and is content is certainly wealthier than the millionare who is consumed with craving his next million. My lot, in ben Zoma’s sense, isn’t even my current spiritual state. It’s the road I’m to travel.
And I think this was Yaaqov avinu‘s mistake. He chose to rest, thinking it was time to be content with what he had then, rather than the notion of life in the process. He hadn’t finished all the work necessary for his life’s mission; it wasn’t time yet to stop.
I think this understanding is reinforced by Ben Zoma’s choice of proof-text and its image of eating by the work of one’s hands. “‘Fortunate’ in this world”, along the way, “and ‘it is good for you’ in the world to come” in terms of what you accomplish. The verse’s language can be taken as one of process, working toward a goal.
Here is the test to find whether your mission on Earth is finished: if you’re alive, it isn’t.
- Richard Bach
The Alter of Kelm (R’ Simcha Zisl Ziv 1824-1898, Lithuania) says something similar in Chomkhmah uMussar, but nothing I could figure out how to reduce to a “sound bite”. Self perfection is the work of a life-time, but that’s exactly why we were given a lifetime.
The whole being-vs-becoming distinction is central to existentialism. Kierkegaard’s central problem was that of becoming a Christian, in explicit contrast to being one.
Sartre’s “Existence precedes the essence” is about the fact that the essence of a person is the process his existence follows. And thus a person exists before his essence does. In contrast to a building, where the essence inhabits the architect’s mind and blueprints before it exists. You could know everything there is to know about a table just by knowing how it will be built and what it’s from. Essence precedes existence. Not so for people.
[M]an first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards.
- Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism
Here’s a related thought from R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch’s (1808-1888, Germany) commentary on themes from Mishlei:
Man can aspire to spiritual-moral greatness which is seldom fully achieved and easily lost again. Fulfillment lies not in a final goal, but in an eternal striving for perfection.
The Alter of Novhardok (R’ Yosef-Yoizl Horowitz 1849-1919) studied under the aforementioned Alter of Kelm. (Alter is a title meaning “elder”; the intent of their students in using this title was to connote a grandfather-grandson relationship.) Here’s a related quote, also from my signature generator, from his Madreigas ha’Adam, but written in the reverse:
Man wants to achieve greatness overnight, and he wants to sleep well that night too.
Last, a thought from the Mussar Movement’s founder, R’ Yisrael Salanter (Lipkin 1810-1883, Lithuania), along the same lines as R’ Hirsch (above):
One doesn’t learn mussar to be a tzaddik, but to become a tzaddik.
The knowledge that this process is what constitutes my curriculum, something tailored specifically for the needs of my soul is quite comforting. The notion that there is something that Hashem’s plan for the universe needed me to do — and only I can do it.
The “payment” Rebbe speaks of is the World to Come. And perhaps, although this may just be homiletics, we could use this identification of “cheileq” (lot / portion) with the person’s entire path through life to explain a grammatical anomaly in another mishnah. The first mishnah in Sanhedrin pereq “Cheileq” (ch. 10 or 11, depending upon edition) begins:
כל ישראל יש להם חלק לעולם הבא. שנאמר (ישעיה ס) “וְעַמֵּךְ כֻּלָּם צַדִּיקִים, לְעוֹלָם יִירְשׁוּ אָרֶץ; נֵצֶר מטעו מַטָּעַי מַעֲשֵׂה יָדַי, לְהִתְפָּאֵר.”
All of Israel [Rambam: in good standing, i.e. those who believe the 13 foundations of our faith] have a portion toward the world to come. As it says “And your nation, they are all righteous, they shall inherit the land eternally; the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, for glorifying Myself.”
(The proof is based on the idea that only the World to Come is a “land” which a person holds eternally.)
Notice the mishnah says that every Jew has a “cheileq le‘olam haba — a portion toward the world to come.” Why doesn’t it say “cheileq be‘olam haba — a portion in the world to come”? Perhaps the mishnah is referring to cheileq in our sense of the term, a person’s lot in terms of their entire existence. In which case, we should translate the mishnah as, “All of Israel have an existence that is a path leading to the world to come”. And, as the Rambam warns, assuming they choose to actually grasp that entire path and walk the road to its intended conclusion.
When I start to feel like I’ve been treading water too long and my arms are getting tired and I’m scared that my head will soon go under, I try to return to the mental image that epiphany gave me. (And I hope I relayed, as it’s hard to convey an epiphany, as I can’t share that “Aha!” feeling, just paint the ideas.) It doesn’t always work, but overall the idea helps keep me sane.
My lot in life is the ladder that I alone can climb. This is climbing the ladder, the process of becoming, Rav Hirsch’s “eternal striving”, the work of a lifetime, not a single night (with a good night’s sleep fitted into it, to boot!). It is the job for which G-d created me as I am, when I live and where I live, with the people I know, the responsibilities I face, and the challenges He throws at me, solely because this is something His great plan required that required his having a Micha Berger to do it.