The Search for Torah
Imagine that you have just been reunited with your long-lost beloved child. For years, your days were full of grief as you mourned his tragic loss. Now you have not only learned of his miraculous existence, but you have also discovered his incredible success. His political and economic accomplishments will ensure the future safety and security of you and your entire family during a period of hardship and despair. After an emotional reunion, your wildly successful son brings you to meet his boss, the ruler of the nation. When the king asks you how you are doing, what do you say?
It is difficult to imagine that you would respond as does our ancestor Jacob in this week’s Torah portion: “Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns (Genesis 47:9).” With that, Jacob “bade Pharaoh farewell, and left Pharaoh’s presence.”
Jacob’s terse and bitter dialogue with Pharaoh is truly a puzzle. As the medieval commentator Ramban exclaims, “I do not understand the meaning of our forefather’s words. For what reason would he complain to the king?” The Pharaoh had asked Jacob, “How old are you?” (Genesis 47:8), or in other words, “Tell me a little about yourself.” One would expect Jacob to express his gratefulness, his relief, and his joy. However, the mystery behind his unexpected response can teach us a valuable lesson about the human journey.
The commentary of Sefat Emet, the 19th century Hasidic master, explores the deep spiritual insights of Torah. In his commentary on this week’s portion, the Sefat Emet writes about the hidden treasures of Torah that can be found within each one of us: “Seek it like silver; search for it as for a treasure” (Proverbs 2:4). He explains:
“On this verse the Rabbi of Przysucha taught the following: The verse says that you should seek it like silver and search for it like treasure. ‘Seeking’ is like a person who wants to acquire something, while ‘searching’ is usually a matter of getting back something you’ve had and lost. The difference is that the latter, the one who has lost something, is the more upset while in the process of searching. But when he finds it, his joy is not so great, because that which he finds was, after all, already his. The ‘seeker’ is just the opposite. His sorrow is not so great, but his joy is even greater. That is why Scripture says that the religious life requires both: you should feel sorry and struggle hard to find that which you lost. But when you find it, you should have great joy, like one who just happened upon a tremendous treasure.”
Our ancestor Jacob was on a search. His life was a continual struggle as his new name, “Israel,” or “god-wrestler,” beautifully illustrates. Perhaps we should not have expected unabashed joy at Jacob’s reunion with Joseph. After all, he had searched for and found what was “already his.” Sometimes when we bring something back into our lives which had been lost, our pain only deepens over what we had lacked all those years. However, Jacob was not able to transcend this pain and to “seek” the great joy of a new unexpected chapter in his life.
Jacob’s journey is our own journey. For so many of us who are returning to Jewish learning, the “search” for Torah is a bittersweet struggle. As the Sefat Emet would argue, the Torah is hidden within us. When we embark on Torah study, we are searching for something which we have lost along the way. Therefore, when we find it, we may have some lingering pain about the many years in which we were bereft of this spiritual nourishment that was so close at hand. However, if we strive to also become spiritual “seekers,” our journeys may take us beyond Jacob’s difficult struggle to the joy and excitement of finding new treasures of Torah each day.
The publication and distribution of “A Taste of Torah” commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.