As the great poet Kanye West once pondered: “And the weather so breezy; man, why can’t life always be this easy?”
Life is hard, and it seems to get harder the older we get. Like all great minds, Yeezy simply gives expression to our deepest desires.
It’s no wonder, then, that some people have often turned to religion looking for reassurance, the ability to transcend our daily struggles, the comfort of knowing we are doing the right thing, or the guarantee that it will all work out in the end (if not for everyone, then at least for us).
Don’t believe this is how people actually relate to religion? Ask your rabbis (or other clergy) what happened to their attendance in services after the election last year. (Not that numbers matter all that much… they clearly didn’t for the election.) This “religious” drive is why Karl Marx called religion “the opium of the people” – many people relate to it as a calm-inducing drug.
The Torah offers a very different understanding of what it means to be religious, and to be human. In the very first sentence of this week’s Torah reading, we read: “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan” (Genesis 37:1). Nothing all that remarkable.
Yet the rabbis read into the word “settled” a deeper longing for tranquility. Jacob has had a difficult life; in his old age, he justifiably wants some peace and quiet. In direct response, God disrupts his life once again through the ensuing drama of his son Joseph (whose brothers sell him into slavery while convincing his father he was killed by wild beasts).
As the biblical commentator Rashi explains: “[When] the righteous seek to dwell in tranquility – God says: ‘Is it not enough for the righteous, what is prepared for them in the world to come, that they seek to settle in tranquility in this world?’”
Life isn’t supposed to be easy – you can rest peacefully when you’re dead.
Instead of encouraging retreat from challenge, Judaism pushes us toward it. The tough moments in life are the moments where we grow the most.
Almost 2000 years before it became a workout slogan, Rabbi Ben Hei Hei said: “According to the pain is the gain.”
It’s ironic that Jacob wanted to settle down, because his name was changed to Israel (which means, “to wrestle with God”) after wrestling with a man/angel just a few chapters earlier. Yet he still retains the name Jacob, which means “heel” and alludes to his tendency to run away, perhaps reminding us that we can never fully overcome our urge to avoid the harder moments.
This is why we need Judaism. Not to provide the easy answers, but to ask the hard questions.
We are called the children of Israel. To live up to our namesake, we must constantly choose to wrestle, instead of escape. It’s the critical first step in improving ourselves and the world around us.