By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
We are not in the business of assigning grades to the righteous sadikim of antiquity. It is not for us to weigh our saintly patriarchs on the “piety scale” to determine who was greater than whom. Our Sages, however, have conveyed to us a tradition naming Yaakov the “behir haavot,” the “choicest” of the three patriarchs. In some respects, it appears, Yaakov’s piety exceeded that of his illustrious father (Yizhak) and grandfather (Avraham). Our job is to understand how specifically Yaakov “outshone” his predecessors, and why he was worthy of such a title.
The Nighttime Prayer
The Talmud relates that each of the three patriarchs established one of the three prayer services which we recite each day. Avraham instituted the morning prayer, and his son, Yizhak, initiated the afternoon minha service. Yaakov, the third patriarch, established the nighttime arvit prayer.
This history of the daily prayers is far more than a tidbit of Jewish trivia; its significance extends beyond mere historical intrigue. It informs the Jewish conception of prayer and emphasizes the different circumstances under which we must pray.
Though he was famously subjected to ten tests, Avraham lived a relatively peaceful and successful life. He enjoyed immense wealth and fame, and commanded respect among his contemporaries. Kings, noblemen and dignitaries afforded Avraham great honor and respect. He succeeded in his life’s mission of disseminating faith in Gd, and was given the privilege of dispensing kindness to countless people. Appropriately, Avraham established the morning prayer, the prayer recited as the sun shines brightly, in times of clarity and illumination. When people saw Avraham’s success, they immediately recognized that he was rewarded for his piety with blessing and prosperity. The story of Avraham is the story of a bright morning sky, of perfect clarity and understanding.
Yizhak, too, enjoyed affluence, health and fame for most of his life. In his later years, however, the “sun” began to set – Yizhak lost his vision. Like the afternoon sun, life shone brightly upon Yizhak for most of his sojourn on earth, but this brilliant light began to wane in his later years. Hence, it was Yizhak who established the afternoon prayer, which we recite as the strong midday sunlight begins to decline.
Finally, Yaakov is the symbol of nighttime, of darkness, of confusion and distress. Unlike his predecessors, Yaakov did not enjoy “sunlight.” His life was one of “darkness,” an ongoing story of frustration, struggle and heartache. After Yaakov rightfully received his father’s blessing, his older brother Esav vowed revenge, forcing him to flee from home. Still unmarried, Yaakov was forced to hide in yeshiva for 14 years, until he finally left to seek refuge with his wily uncle, Lavan. There he met his chosen mate, his cousin Rachel, for whom Lavan demanded seven years of hard work shepherding his flocks. When the long-awaited wedding night finally arrived, Lavan tricked Yaakov and brought his other daughter, Leah, to the canopy. When Yaakov protested, Lavan agreed to allow him marry Rachel – but only if he committed to yet another seven years of labor!
After Yaakov finally escaped from Lavan’s home and returned to Israel, he endured the untimely death of his wife, the tragedy of his daughter’s abduction, and then the disappearance of his beloved son, Yosef, whom he did not see for over twenty years.
Yaakov’s life is symbolized by the dark of night. With regard to Avraham, everything was clear as day – he lived a life of piety, and was rewarded with all the blessings a man could ask for. This was not the case with Yaakov. He, too, was pious, humble, truthful, and unwaveringly devoted to Gd. Yet, he suffered a tumultuous life and did not experience the comfort and stability enjoyed by his predecessors. Yaakov’s life was “dark” – a source of theological confusion and perplexity.
When the Sages comment that Yaakov established the nighttime prayer, they don’t mean merely that he instituted the daily arvit service. Rather, he established the precedent of praying to and trusting in Gd even in times of confusion, fear and uncertainty. Yaakov exemplified faith that passes even the most grueling tests, that remains firm and unshaken even in times of darkness, when Gd’s presence and providence seem absent from the world.
For this reason, Yaakov is dubbed “behir haavot.” Avraham and Yizhak were men of great religious devotion, but they lived in the “sunlight,” amid success and tranquility. Yaakov confronted the more difficult test of remaining faithfully devoted to Gd under the harshest circumstances, amid agonizing distress and crisis. Throughout the years of anguish and unrest, he never questioned Gd. His faith remained strong even in the darkest hours of life, even when it seemed like he would never behold the sunlight.
When Life Isn’t Fair
The theological challenge that Yaakov confronted and overcame is one which we all have to confront on some level at various times. We so often see righteous, devoted men and women who suffer misfortune and hardship, while others who disregard Torah and missvot prosper and enjoy comfort and wealth. When assessing our own lives, too, we often feel that life just isn’t fair, that our hard work and commitment to Torah don’t yield the “dividends” we expect.
In my experience in the rabbinate, the complaint of “it’s not fair” has been among the leading causes – if not the leading cause – of Jews abandoning religious observance. All too often, people experiencing personal problems reach the erroneous conclusion that it’s just not worth it, that they have no reason to persist in their Torah observance if they are not getting what they want in return. And even among those who remain faithful to Gd and Torah, these questions invariably arise. “Why should I bother?” “What am I getting out of it?” “What’s in it for me?”
In a famous pair of verses in Tehillim (92:2-3), King David proclaims, “It is good to thank Hashem…to speak of Your kindness in the morning, and of Your faith in the nights.” In the “morning,” when the light of success shines brightly upon us, we must express our gratitude to the Almighty – “to speak of Your kindness in the morning.” But there are other times, “in the nights,” when we do not enjoy “sunlight,” when we must endure hardships and deal with disappointments. On these occasions, King David urges we should focus our attention on “Your faith,” on reinforcing our belief in Gd’s justice and the ultimate reward guaranteed to those who remain faithful. When hard times befall us, we must remind ourselves that the world, and our lives, are in very good hands. Gd has been governing the earth for nearly six millennia and hasn’t made a single mistake. He knows exactly what He’s doing, and He has a plan for us which, though we often cannot recognize, will ultimately be revealed to be perfect. This is the “faith in the nights” of which King David speaks, and this was the unique achievement of Yaakov Avinu, who never lost faith even in the darkest hours.
Thank You for Making Me the Victim
When I studied in yeshiva, my rabbis taught us that we may never cast judgment upon those Jews who lost their faith in the concentration camps. We cannot possibly ever put ourselves in the shoes of those who witnessed the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, who saw each day thousands of innocent, righteous Jews mercilessly slaughtered with unparalleled brutality. The test of faith presented by such an experience, seeing the lowliest, most despicable people on earth triumph over pious, gentle souls, was understandably too much for many people to bear. By the same token, my rabbis taught, when we come across a Jew who survived the Holocaust with his or her faith intact, we should ask the survivor for a blessing. The merit of retaining faith in Gd under such circumstances renders these survivors’ blessings more powerful and effective than the blessings of even the greatest sages and sadikim.
I once delivered a lecture in Miami Beach, and afterward I was approached by an older, European woman who thanked me for the presentation and added that she regularly listens to my recorded lectures online. As she spoke, I noticed a number stamped on her forearm, indicating that she had spent time in a concentration camp during World War II. I mentioned to the woman the guidance I received from my rabbis to receive a blessing from any Jew who survived the Holocaust without losing faith, and she indeed placed her hand over my head and gave me a warm blessing for success. I’ve received blessings from the greatest rabbis in the world, but I am confident that the blessing conferred by this woman was the most meaningful and potent of them all.
After she gave me her blessing, I mustered the courage to ask her how she managed to retain her faith throughout such an unspeakably painful ordeal. I’ll never forget her answer:
“As they branded the number upon my arm, which was very painful, I thought to myself: ‘Thank You, Hashem, for making me the victim, and not making me the criminal.’ I knew that I was on the right side of the equation, and for that I am forever grateful to Gd.”
This woman withstood the harshest test of faith by seeing Gd’s kindness even amid the horrors of the Holocaust. Even in the dark of night, a small ray of light was visible to those who looked for it. She was grateful for being cast as the innocent victim, rather than the ruthless killer. She thanked the Almighty for keeping her pure and compassionate in a world overrun by cruelty. And this recognition enabled her to keep her faith even as she saw untold numbers of innocent people fall prey to the forces of evil.
This must be our approach, as well – to recognize all that Gd does for us even when life isn’t perfect.
Rarely do we hear people attribute their success to Gd. When the business prospers, it is because of one’s hard work and skill; when an investment yields a large profit, it’s because of one’s acumen and financial sixth-sense. Gd does not enter the picture. Yet, when the business collapses, or when the investment is lost, it’s Gd’s fault. He doesn’t get credit for the success, but He gets blamed for the failure. Faith requires us to acknowledge Gd’s role in everything that is good about our lives. When we recognize how much good He does for us, we are better equipped to handle the bumps along the road.
A Bittersweet Life – Without the Bitterness
Faith in hard times is a challenge – but is also, without question, the most effective and helpful way to confront crisis and hardship.
Recall that after Yaakov spent seven years working for Lavan in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage, Lavan fooled him and gave him Leah, instead. He agreed to allow Yaakov to marry Rachel the next week only if he committed to yet another seven years of service, and Yaakov consented.
The Sages teach us that Yaakov worked during the second seven-year period with the same devotion and care as he did during the first seven years. He had every reason to justify “slacking off” and working halfheartedly. After all, he had already fulfilled his obligation of seven years of service. Lavan unfairly fooled him into another seven years. But Yaakov harbored no such thoughts or feelings. He remained calm, cool and collected all throughout, accepted the circumstances, and continued working without hesitation or resentment.
How did he do it? How could Yaakov continue as though nothing happened, after being cheated out of seven years of life?
The answer lies in one word: faith. When a person believes that everything that happens is ordained by Gd, and is a manifestation of the divine will, he accepts it all without resentment. Faith is the key to serenity and peace of mind, and to remaining calm in the face of trying circumstances. Once we realize that the circumstances are Gd’s doing, we can accept them with calmness and composure, without becoming flustered or agitated.
Life is bittersweet by design – nobody is spared from problems or challenges. But faith gives us a way to deflect the “bitter” and keep only the “sweet.” By believing that Gd’s perfect plan is behind everything that happens, we can stay calm and content regardless of the situation, and enjoy the sweetness of life without fretting over what feels like the bitterness.
Faith and Economics
As crucial as faith is in any trying situation, it assumes particular importance when it comes to finances. Over the past year, as the world financial crisis devastated businesses and households across the globe, a letter written during the Great Depression of the 1930’s began circulating among religious Jews. The author was the venerated Lithuanian sage Rav Elchanan Wasserman (1875-1941), who sought to offer a Torah perspective on the financial ruin wrought by the Depression. He noted that the Hebrew word for coins, “zuzim,” is derived from the Hebrew word for “move” (“zuz”). As economists have noted, financial markets succeed when money flows, when funds are being transferred from investor to corporation, from buyer to seller, from customer to proprietor. Financial crisis surfaces when people stop spending, when people keep their money idle and frozen, rather than buying and investing.
Taking the discussion one step further, Rav Elchanan asked, what causes people to stop spending? Why does money stop flowing?
Money stands still, the rabbi explained, when people lose faith in the system, when they are anxious and untrusting. An anxious banker stops lending and offering mortgages; anxious consumers stop buying on credit; anxious investors stop investing in new enterprises; anxious employers stop hiring. Markets slump, and eventually crash, when people lose faith in one another, and prefer keeping their money locked up in a safe, rather than spending and investing.
Rav Elchanan’s analysis until this point is no different from basic economic theory. Unlike the economists, however, he dared to address the next question: what makes people untrusting? Why do people lose faith in the marketplace?
His answer, very simply, is that people lose faith in people when they lose faith in Gd.
Rav Elchanan observed a society that removed Gd from the equation, that celebrated the independent abilities of the human being and the greatness of manmade economies. People grew accustomed to trusting only themselves, their own skills and their own handiwork. It was only natural that they then became untrusting of others. Once people are in the habit of trusting themselves and not Gd, they cannot trust anyone else.
This is how the absence of faith has a direct impact upon the economic climate. When people take full credit for their success and fail to acknowledge Gd’s role, they gradually lose the ability to trust others. And in an environment of mistrust, economies collapse. When people maintain their faith in Gd, they are able to maintain their faith in others, and in the economic system.
It is easy to lose hope and faith during times of hardship. Unlike the darkness of night, which we know will eventually end at a specific time on the clock, the darkness of misfortune appears permanent and seems like it will never end. Yaakov Avinu never lost faith amid the darkness, and indeed the sun eventually rose. At the end of his life, he was reunited with Yosef and lived happily and peacefully among his children and grandchildren in Egypt. We, too, must reinforce our faith and be determined to weather the storm until happier times come upon us. The night ultimately gives way to light, the brilliant light of happiness, success and prosperity that Gd will soon shine upon all of us in the merit of our firm and unwavering faith even during times of hardship.