Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXX, p. 176ff

Does G‑d Approve of the Desire of the Righteous?

On the verse,1 “And Yaakov settled in the land of his father’s wandering,” Rashi comments:2

Yaakov desired to dwell in prosperity, but the distress of Yosef’s [disappearance] beset him. The righteous desire to dwell in prosperity, but the Holy One, blessed be He, says: “Is not what is prepared for them in the World to Come enough for the righteous? Must they also desire prosperity in this world?”

Rashi’s statement is problematic, for a casual reading gives the impression that G‑d does not approve of the righteous wanting prosperity. On the other hand, the fact that “the righteous” follow this path of conduct indicates that the desire for prosperity is a positive trait and not a character flaw.3

Seeking Internal not External Challenges

This difficulty can be resolved by focusing on the fact that Rashi speaks about a desire for prosperity expressed by the righteous. Why only the righteous? Everyone wants to enjoy an abundance of good without strife, contention, or difficulty.

The desire for prosperity by the righteous, however, is of a different type entirely. To cite a parallel: with regard to the Era of the Redemption, the Rambam writes:

When a person is beset… with sickness, war, and hunger, he cannot occupy himself neither with wisdom nor with mitzvos. For this reason, all Israel and [in particular,] their prophets and sages have desired the Era of the Mashiach.4

The Sages and the prophets did not yearn for the Era of the Mashiach so that [the Jewish people] would rule the world… nor to eat, drink, and celebrate. Rather, their aspiration was to be free [to involve themselves] in the Torah and its wisdom, without anyone oppressing or disturbing them.5

On the surface, such a condition describes the World to Come, where the righteous will “sit… and derive benefit from the radiance of the Divine Presence.”6 It seems unnatural, however, in our present material circumstances.

Nevertheless, a distinction must be made. The World to Come represents G‑d’s reward to man just recompense for man’s Divine service. This is a departure from the pattern of our present existence, of which it is said,7 “Today to perform them (the mitzvos); tomorrow to receive their reward.”

The righteous, by contrast, are not concerned with reward. On the contrary, to refer to the passage cited above, they long to involve themselves in the Torah and its mitzvos. Their aspiration is only that they be freed from external difficulties. They want to grow in understanding and personal development. Why must they be confronted with challenges from the outside? Let all their efforts be devoted to the internal challenges of spiritual growth.

The Fulfillment of Yaakov’s Desire

In this light, we can understand G‑d’s response to Yaakov’s request. G‑d wanted Yaakov’s wish for prosperity to be fulfilled as it was indeed fulfilled in the 17 years of prosperity which he enjoyed in Egypt. But such prosperity must be earned by an appropriate measure of Divine service. Since Yaakov in his current state was not worthy to receive such prosperity, G‑d subjected him to a further trial through which he could advance himself.8 The sorrow caused by the sale of Yosef initiated a process of refinement by which Yaakov ultimately merited to attain the spiritual and material prosperity he sought.

This concept resolves a problematic point. The name of a Torah reading communicates not merely a significant lesson in itself, but the message and theme of the reading as a whole. Seemingly, the name Vayeishev, which indicates prosperity, is not at all appropriate for this reading, which deals primarily with travail and sorrow.

Based on the above, however, it can be explained that the name is deserved, for it is only this travail which enabled Yaakov to attain true prosperity.

Two Levels of Prosperity

But further clarification is necessary. Yaakov must have known that the spiritual prosperity he desired would be granted only as result of Divine service, and that this would require that he overcome challenges. Nevertheless, he thought it was sufficient for him to have confronted the challenges posed by Esav and Lavan.

Our Sages identify9 Yaakov with the attribute of Truth; thus we can assume his self-appraisal was honest. Since Yaakov saw himself as being worthy of prosperity, why was it necessary for him to undergo a further challenge?

In resolution, it can be explained that there are two levels of prosperity fitting for the righteous:

a) One which can be appreciated by mortals: that a person, his children and his grandchildren should be able to serve G‑d without difficulty, free to pursue the spiritual path.

b) One above mortal conception, a foretaste of the World to Come: “you will see your [portion of] the World [to Come] in your lifetime.”10 Just as the nature of the World to Come cannot be comprehended by mortals,11 so too, this foretaste transcends our understanding.

Yaakov asked for a level of prosperity that could be conceived by mortals. G‑d granted this to him, and thus for nine years he enjoyed success and happiness in Eretz Yisrael.12 But G‑d also wanted Yaakov to appreciate a higher level of prosperity, and therefore subjected him to the trials beginning with the sale of Yosef so that Yaakov would become worthy of this greater Divine favor.13

A Challenge of a Unique Nature

Since the prosperity G‑d desired to grant Yaakov was above the limits of worldly existence, the Divine service which made him worthy of it differed from the challenges he had already faced. Yaakov’s confrontations with Lavan and Esav were symbolic of the struggle between good and evil, and man’s efforts to refine and elevate his environment.

The tribulations brought about by the sale of Yosef, by contrast, did not reflect these goals at all. The challenge and the refinement it brought about was strictly internal. It was a trial that seemingly had no purpose, bringing only aggravation and suffering, and initially lowering Yaakov’s spiritual level.14 Nevertheless, this was the process by which G‑d chose to lift Yaakov to a more elevated spiritual rung and make him fit to receive the ultimate blessings.

The Necessity to Ask

One might ask: Since the prosperity which Yaakov was ultimately granted was not the prosperity he initially sought, why was his request the catalyst that triggered the sequence of events which would lead to this prosperity? Since the initiative was G‑d’s alone, why was it at all dependent on man?

The answer is that “the Holy One, blessed be He, desires the prayers of the righteous.”15 Until Yaakov asked for prosperity, G‑d did not grant it to him. But when he asked, G‑d set him tasks that would bring him not only the limited prosperity which man can comprehend, but the prosperity that transcends understanding.

A similar concept applies with regard to our requests for the coming of the Redemption. The true nature of the Redemption is beyond human conception.16 Nevertheless, our prayers hasten its coming.