By Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
Yaakov’s struggles were over — or at least he thought so. He had met the challenge of living 22 years with a conniving uncle; he had held back the malicious advances made by Esav and had appeased him properly. His daughter was rescued from the clutches of an evil prince, and though his children had attacked and decimated the city of Shechem, the neighboring countries did not seek revenge. This week the portion begins “Vayeshev Yaakov,” and Yaakov settled. The Midrash tells us that Yaakov wanted to rest. The Midrash continues that the Almighty did not approve of Yaakov’s retirement plans. Hashem asked, “are the righteous not satisfied with the World to Come? They would want to rest in this world too?” Immediately, says the Midrash, the incident with Yoseph occurred. Yoseph is kidnapped by his brothers and sold as a slave, thus throwing Yaakov’s tumultuous existence into another 22 years of agony.
What exactly is the objection toward Yaakov’s desire to rest? Why couldn’t the father of the 12 tribes spend the final third of his life in tranquillity?
On the fast day of the Tenth of Teves, during the height of World War II, Rabbi Ahron Kotler took the well known activist Irving Bunim on a train trip to Washington. The war in Europe was raging, Jews were being exterminated, and the two had to see a high-ranking Washington official to plead with him in every possible way — “save our brothers.” On the way down to Washington Rabbi Kotler tried to persuade Bunim to break his fast. “Bunim,” he explained. “You cannot fast now. You need your strength for the meeting.”
But Irving Bunim refused to eat. He was sure that he could hold out until the evening when the fast ended.
The meeting was intense. Rabbi Kotler cried, cajoled, and begged the official to respond. Finally, the great rabbi felt that he impressed upon the man the severity of the situation. The man gave his commitment that he would talk to the President. When they left the meeting Bunim was exhausted. He mentioned to Rabbi Kotler that he thought the meeting went well and now he’d like to eat.
Rav Ahron was quick to reply. “With Hashem’s help it will be good. And Bunim,” he added, “now you can fast!”
Yaakov wanted to rest. However, Hashem had a different view. There is no real rest in this world. As much as one has accomplished, there is always another battle — another test. The moment one declares victory, another battle looms.
This week we celebrate Chanukah. The words Chanukah mean “they rested on the 25th (of Kislev).” It was not a total rest. Just one rest from one battle. The Hasmoneans had to rededicate the desecrated Temple, re-light the Menorah, and re-establish the supremacy of Torah over a Hellenist culture that had corrupted Jewish life. They rested from physical battle, but they knew that there would be a constant battle over spirituality for ages to come. They established the Menorah-lighting ceremony with flames that have glowed until today proclaiming with each flicker that the battle may be over but the war is endless — until the final rest.