The picture presented to us at the opening of parashat Vayeishev is one of almost idyllic perfection: Jacob's family is complete, his children are all loyal to his ideals, he has amassed great wealth, he has returned to the patriarchal seat in the Holy Land, and he has assumed the mantle of leadership. Moreover, he has solidly established his reputation by physically and spiritually overcoming three adversaries—Laban, Esau, and Shechem—and he is both esteemed and feared by the surrounding population. It would seem that all that now remains for him to do is to continue raising and guiding his family until it grows large and viable enough to constitute a people ready to receive the Torah. Even the name of the parashah, Vayeishev, which means "he dwelt," evokes an image of pastoral serenity.

After all the suffering he underwent, Jacob thanked God for this respite and asked Him to grant him continued tranquility. Clearly, he reasoned, he could fulfill his Divine mission better if unburdened by enemies and other worries. Thus, Jacob asked God for tranquility for the same reason that we long for the messianic future: in order to be free of all the impediments to fulfilling God's will in the fullest way possible. And indeed, God approved of Jacob's desire and granted his petition, at least to a certain extent: He allowed him to enjoy relative peace and comfort for a full nine years after arriving in Hebron.

But, as we immediately discover, there was a pernicious sibling rivalry brewing beneath the tranquil surface, which, when it emerged, would threaten to destroy the family and dash any hopes that this brotherhood would ever become the bearers of the patriarchs' vision. First, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers; then Judah parted company with them to form an alliance outside the family. Jacob himself remained inconsolable over the loss of Joseph. It would seem, then, that the rest of the parashah—that is, all but its first verse—reflects anything but the tranquility implied in its name.

To understand this seeming contradiction, let us recall that Jacob knew that fulfilling the Divine mission of making the world into God's home was dependent upon his overcoming the metaphysical power of Esau,1 and that Joseph embodied the spiritual qualities that would facilitate that achievement.2 Jacob therefore saw Joseph as his natural successor. Thus, although the last six parashiot of the Torah are devoted to Jacob, the last four of these six detail how Joseph fulfilled his father's expectations of him, providing the leadership needed by the next generation.

However, whereas Jacob chose to focus on Joseph's inner spiritual qualities, Joseph's brothers could not but notice that he was given to worrisome behavior, evincing arrogance and conceit that was alarmingly reminiscent of Esau's! The fact that their father openly treated him as their superior, apparently overlooking his shortcomings, only reinforced their association between him and Esau: after all, Esau's father Isaac was also deceived into thinking that his favored son was the rightful heir despite his outward behavior.

The brothers therefore concluded that just as there were children in the first two generations of Abraham's family who, for the good of the cause, had to be cut off, so, too, was it proving to be with the third generation. Rather than being the antidote to Esau, Joseph himself was the new Esau, and had to be eliminated.3

Once Joseph's brothers were unequivocally convinced that he was unfit to rule, Divine Providence had to arrange for them to be convinced otherwise, and so began the protracted saga of Joseph's odyssey in Egypt.

The catalyst who unwittingly changed the course of events at this turning point was Jacob's fourth son, Judah, who stepped forth to convince his brothers to sell Joseph to a passing caravan rather than kill him. Judah thus turned a situation that threatened to be the certain end of everything into a new beginning, setting in motion the process that would ultimately lead to the brothers' reunion and reconciliation with Joseph, his subsequent rightful assumption of the family leadership, and the fulfillment of Jacob's desire to serve God in peace and tranquility.

This explains why the Torah interrupts the narrative of Joseph with an interlude describing Judah's extra-familial business alliance. Through this alliance he fathered Peretz, the ancestor of King David,4 who was, in turn, the ancestor of the Messiah. Judah thus emerges as the catalyst not only of the redemption of Jacob's family but also of the ultimate redemption of the entire Jewish people and of humanity in general.

In asking God for the tranquility necessary to better fulfill his Divine mission, Jacob was simply asking for what he had earned by having passed his tests with Laban, Esau, and Shechem, and as we said, God granted him this tranquility for a time. But afterward, God wanted to grant Jacob an even more-profound tranquility, enabling him to fulfill his Divine mission in an even more profound way. This tranquility would transcend that which he had earned by virtue of his own efforts, and would be a foretaste of the messianic era. In order to earn this level of peace and contentment, Jacob had to pass a test the likes of which he had never before faced.

The common denominator of his prior tests was that each was a struggle with some form of evil. Such tests may indeed be difficult, but at least they give us the satisfaction of knowing that we are accomplishing something tangible by passing them. In contrast, the test of seemingly meaningless suffering offers no such satisfaction. It was precisely to this sort of test that God now subjected Jacob, in the form of the ordeal of losing Joseph and enduring prolonged, debilitating doubt over the fate of his life's work. By enduring this suffering, Jacob was refined to the point that he later became (in parashat Vayechi) a fitting recipient of God's gift of infinitely profound peace and contentment.

The first lesson, then, that we can take from this parashah is to be aware that the hand of Divine Providence is always orchestrating events, albeit sometimes behind the scenes. No matter how hopeless our situation may seem, the solution may be just around the corner, and the mechanism of redemption might well already have been set in motion.

Secondly, we see how important it is to look beyond the vicissitudes of the present and yearn for the Redemption, just as we find Jacob doing at the opening of this parashah. It is instructive to note that God did not seek to take Jacob on the path that would lead to true, messianic tranquility until he specifically requested it. Furthermore, it was his longing for the messianic redemption that set in motion the entire process that would eventually lead to precisely that Redemption.5

Astute observers may respectfully submit at this point that they would rather forego the reward of true peace and contentment if the price to be paid is prolonged, senseless suffering akin to Jacob's. But inasmuch as we have already suffered so much throughout history, particularly in recent years, it is clear that we have already undergone sufficient refinement to merit the final Redemption without having to be subjected to any further suffering. All that remains is for us to entreat God sincerely and assertively, and He will surely respond.6