Tzaddikim have no rest

Rashi introduces this week’s parshah with the words of the Midrash:

Jacob wished to live in tranquility, but then the trouble of Joseph sprang upon him. When the tzaddikim wish to live in peace, The Holy One, Blessed Be He, says, “Is it not enough for the tzaddikim that so much is prepared for them in the next world, that they seek to live in peace in this world?”1

Jacob consistently tries to settle down quietly, to live at ease, and each time, some new trouble springs upon him. In all the stories about Jacob, and in stories of many other tzaddikim as well, we are often struck with the question of to what extent tzaddikim can attain peace of mind. The question is not about physical wellbeing. In the course of his life, Jacob is hardly harmed at all physically. Jacob’s trials are in the sphere of sorrow and grief, and the story of Jacob is a struggle for peace of mind.

When Rabbi Yannai says that “in our hands we have neither the tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous,”2 he notes the seemingly counterintuitive reality that the wicked experience tranquility while the righteous experience suffering. The suffering of the righteous is part of their world, part of the pattern of their existence. The assurance to the righteous is that they will “have no rest, neither in this world nor in the next.”3 This is no coincidence; it is a basic philosophical tenet – God bestows many favors and gifts upon the righteous, both in this world and in the next, but tranquility is not one of them.

Correspondingly, the Talmud states, “For the wicked, sleep is good for them and good for the world, but for the righteous, it is bad for them and bad for the world.”4 There is no rest for the righteous. When a tzaddik wants to rest, God does not let him, as if to say that the lack of tranquility is an essential part of being a tzaddik.

Peace of mind

In our world, peace of mind is one of the most sought-after commodities on the market. We are not speaking only of the fields of psychology and psychotherapy. Every person, according to his emotional makeup, is troubled by all kinds of doubts and insecurities. This is even truer today than in the past, in a world that is much more dynamic, driven, and harried than ever before. Because of this, every person searches for tranquility, in one way or another. Whether a person’s solution involves therapy, drugs, or personal introspection, the search for peace of mind is often motivated by the desire to escape from a world full of anguish to a world of calm. Everyone wants to live in peace, and many are even willing to pay for this.

For many people, choosing a path of faith is perceived as choosing a path of tranquility and ease – a way of securing peace of mind for oneself. The search for tranquility is often what leads people to connect with Judaism, since a religious life is often perceived as calm and effortless, in contrast to other lifestyles where one is always on the run.

Actually, there is some truth in this perception. This can be observed in the case of smokers. Many people cannot go fifteen minutes without a cigarette during the week, but on Shabbat, completely abstaining from smoking does not trouble them at all. How is this possible? There are many things in this world that are only troubling when they are in the realm of the possible and the doable. But on Shabbat, when these things are in the realm of the forbidden – completely out of bounds – peace of mind can be achieved.

This is true of many things in the framework of Torah and mitzvot, by virtue of the Torah’s nature as a highly structured world of prohibition and permissibility. People are often afflicted with lusts and desires because the object of their desire is within reach. But as soon as they know that it is unthinkable, that it is entirely impossible, there is no longer a reason to lust for it.

An interesting example of this is cited by Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on the verse, “Do not covet.”5 He writes that just as it does not even occur to a simple peasant to covet the royal princess, that is how it should be regarding a married woman. The peasant is not beset with dreams about the beautiful princess; he does not even think about her. Perhaps there are princes who are interested in her, but the simple peasant is not. When something is entirely beyond a person’s reach, he simply does not think about it, does not seriously consider it. Because of this, there is neither an element of temptation nor a need for a struggle. Similarly, “your neighbor’s house,” “your neighbor’s wife,” and similar objects of desire should be seen as outside the realm of the permitted, in the realm of the completely forbidden.

To be sure, the very transition to a life of Torah and mitzvot requires a momentous, fateful decision, but ultimately such a life provides, in certain respects, a great deal of calm. To put it more profoundly: A world where God exists is a world of peace of mind and security. A world where God does not exist is a world that is fraught with anxiety and insecurity; it is like an endless maze.

A world of questions

When we speak of the tranquility of a world of Torah and mitzvot, we must ask if this tranquility, while certainly making for a clearer and more orderly world, truly makes for a better world. It does appear to be a more complete world than the world that is devoid of Torah, but is it truly more complete, or does it just appear to be so?

The answer to this question is that, as already noted, “tzaddikim have no rest.” Although it is possible to view this lack of rest as secondary, we see that, according to our sages, there is no rest in the World to Come either. Apparently, lack of rest is an integral and fundamental part of being a tzaddik, perhaps even an ideal form of existence.

Anyone who is a part of the world of faith knows that it is not an easy world in which to live. Anguish and inner struggle are par for the course for the faithful. It has been said that the verse, “Seven times a tzaddik falls and gets up”,6 is not a description of the tzaddik’s failures but of his natural progression. A sharper formulation would be that crisis is part of the process of the tzaddik’s revitalization and rejuvenation, and falling is part of the process of his growth.

Somewhat similarly, the Talmud states that “one does not fully understand the words of the Torah unless he has been tripped up over them.”7 The simple meaning of this is that, by its very nature, Torah study requires rising and falling; failure is part of the process.

People are often curious about the “ideal method” of studying Torah. The answer may be found on every page of Talmud, in the Rishonim and in the Acharonim. Our corpus of Torah literature is full of questions and objections, difficulties and contradictions. Clearly, the Talmud thrives on questions more than on answers. The ideal methodology for Torah study is clear: Keep asking questions.

In the language of our sages, there exists many different words for questions. This poses problems for translators, since this vast “question” terminology, with all the various shades of meaning, cannot always be rendered properly in other languages. No other language seems to have quite so many different words for “question” as we do.

It has been claimed that Eskimos have a remarkably large number of words for snow – and it is no wonder. They live in snow throughout their lives, causing them to develop fine distinctions between different kinds of snow – heavy, light, thin, etc. Each type of snow has its own term. In countries where snow falls not nearly as frequently, many fewer terms for snow exist. By the same token, Jewish people live in a world that is rife with questions; it is therefore understandable that so many terms have developed, each of which expresses a different aspect of questioning or a different type of question.

In this regard, Maimonides is exceptional in his attempt to arrange all of Torah such that the framework of questions and answers would be rendered unnecessary. At the end of his introduction to the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes that he wants to spare the Jewish people the trouble of asking questions. He claims that anyone who reads the Written Law and his book can skip everything in between. He does not advocate forgoing the Written Law or claim that the Mishneh Torah should take the place of the Tanach, but he is willing to recommend skipping the Oral Law. Why should a person spend his life on questions, answers, and comparisons? Why go into all that if everything can be laid out clearly and cleanly in one solitary book?

The fact is that this attempt was not successful. Maimonides himself writes that he decided not to cite his sources because he wanted to avoid confusion, but later, when he realized what happened, he regretted this decision.8 What the Jews did to Maimonides and his great work would probably have exasperated him. Instead of the Mishneh Torah becoming a haven of calm and tranquility, where the weary could find rest, it became one the best sources for new questions. This work, which was meant to lead us to tranquility, in practice became a source for, and the focus of, many more questions.

Why is it that we thrive on questions? Before we answer, it is important to stress that there is no shame in asking questions. Though it may seem that one who asks questions admits that he lacks knowledge or understanding, the truth is quite the opposite. In a sense, it is the scholar – the one with the most knowledge of all – who asks the most questions. A non-scholar has no questions to ask, not because he knows the most but because he knows the least. In giving us the Torah, God is not selling us tranquility. Tranquility is not part of the reward. Rather, one who reaches a state in which he has no more questions, difficulties, doubts, or problems, is not the ideal man but, on the contrary, is one who has left the world entirely.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa is said to have suggested that a man should always imagine that his head is on the execution block, the evil inclination standing over him with a large axe, ready to decapitate him. One of his disciples asked, “What happens if a man does not imagine this?” Rabbi Simcha Bunim answered that this would be a sure sign that the evil inclination has already cut off his head. If a person no longer feels any anguish and lives in tranquility and peace, then he must have already been decapitated, and that is why he has a good life, full of peace and tranquility.

This conclusion is not comforting and certainly is not calming. A life of tranquility is surely more pleasant than a life of anxiety and stressfulness, but it is not a better life. Choosing the right path does not mean choosing a life of ease, nor does it mean choosing a life that is devoid of problems. Rather, it means choosing a life that inevitably contains a certain degree of anguish.

From strength to strength

“Jacob wished to live in tranquility.” Jacob is an old man, over a hundred years old, and he finally decides that he is done. He studied Torah for several years, he worked for several years, and he married four women. Now, reasons Jacob, he certainly deserves the right to settle down and lead a quiet life. The truth is that when the incident with Esau concludes, it appears that Jacob thinks that the world has more or less reached a state of tranquility.

Just when Jacob is preparing to enjoy his hard-earned rest, God interrupts, saying, “Is it not enough for the tzaddikim that so much is prepared for them in the next world, that they seek to live in peace in this world?” The righteous do not live at ease, not as a punishment for sins, but because for them, to sleep in tranquility would be “bad for them and bad for the world.” The complication, the anguish, the pain that exists in the world – if the tzaddik does not have all of these, then apparently something is wrong in his essential character.

While it is undoubtedly true that, in certain respects, one who lives within the world of Judaism gains the ability to solve his inner dilemmas and torments, the end goal is never to enable one to settle down in tranquility. If, at any point, a Jew believes that he has freed himself of the Esaus and the Labans of his life, and that he will now be able to enter a good and spacious land where he will live at ease and rest in peace, he is simply mistaken. Going deeper and deeper into Judaism does not mean that one solves all of one’s problems and attains tranquility. That kind of empty tranquility only brings a person closer and closer to death, to the point where his existence is entirely superfluous. Once our questions have been answered, they do not go away; they simply change, becoming new questions altogether.

The draw of Judaism is not the prospect of attaining tranquility, as it is in some other religions. When a person draws closer to God and to the world of Judaism, he is rewarded not with rest but only with questions and more questions. If a person is especially successful in his spiritual journey, every day three of his small questions will die, and three large questions will be born in their place.

Even in the World to Come, there is no rest for the righteous. “They go from strength to strength,”9 which is another way of conveying this notion. When a tzaddik “graduates” from one world, finishing his learning process in this world, he is promoted to another world. What does he gain in this whole process if he is constantly working? What he gains through his labor are new questions, ones that he has never previously considered. Although these are more difficult questions, they are also questions that relate to a loftier world. He can engage in more exalted matters, but he never stops asking questions: What is more important? What is more fitting? What is the proper path to take?

That is what is truly required – not to live in pursuit of tranquility, but to live in a world of questions, each one lifting a person higher and higher in his spiritual journey.