This week’s parshah, Vayechi, begins with Jacob on his deathbed. The last great Patriarch of the Book of Genesis, Jacob, knows that the end is near. And he does what one might expect any patriarch to do in such a situation: He summons his sons before him to dispense wisdom, expectations, and prophecy.
For some, the future looks rather complicated. To Simon and Levi, for example, he says: “Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel.” For others, the prophecy is quite a bit rosier: “You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise; Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes; Your father’s sons shall bow low to you.” Who among us does not dream of precisely such a blessing from our fathers?
But one blessing in particular leaves the reader somewhat perplexed. To Issachar, Jacob says: “Issachar is a strong-boned ass, crouching among the sheepfolds. When he saw how good was security, And how pleasant was the country, He bent his shoulder to the burden, And became a toiling serf.”
What does all of this mean? Jacob recognizes his strength, and the superiority of his work ethic (a donkey compared to the sheep with which he is surrounded). Ok. And upon receiving such a compliment, Jacob predicts that rather than resting on his laurels, will only work harder. He predicts Issachar will toil like a serf. Why? Clearly having other options, why would the son of the great Patriarch devote his life to menial labor?
Jacob recognized in Issachar what we might call today the value of discomfort. He recognized that Issachar would not be content to merely lounge in the lap of luxury, but that instead Issachar would push himself continuously. For Issachar, his greatest enemy would be the comfort zone. He would dedicate himself to stretching the boundaries of his experience, and would constantly seek to learn, to grow, and to work hard to better himself.
Think of the toughest, most prepared people you know. Let us take the US Navy SEALs, for example. Their training is notoriously brutal, and there are two reasons for this. First, they have a great deal of skills they must learn. The scope of their knowledge is vast, and that takes time and hard training. Second, they must be prepared to face adversity – they must function at a high level in the cold and wet. They need to be prepared to make important survival decisions when they are hungry and cold. If they never face discomfort in their training, they will necessarily be unable to handle adversity in their real world operating environments.
Life is necessarily unpredictable, and chock full of its fair share of challenges. The only way we prepare to face our challenges head on is to be in the mode of constant work and preparation for our challenges. Like the warrior who trains night and day or the athlete who practices constantly or the artist who wakes in the middle of the night to cultivate a new idea, we too must become comfortable in our discomfort. We must keep pushing, learning, and striving. We must always be prepared to bend our shoulders to the burden.
Like the Navy SEALs, Issachar is fortunate to live his life staring uphill. And so must we. Whether in our physical training or our spiritual conditioning, we must push ourselves to be in peak shape so that when the test comes (and, inevitably, it will come), we are ready.
Shabbat shalom from your Sloan’s Lake Rabbi!