The Best Kind of Mitzvah

Vayeishev Yaakov b’eretz megurei aviv (Bereishis 37:1)

After emerging triumphant from his struggles against his wicked father-in-law, Lavan, and his brother, Esav, Yaakov returned to Canaan to settle in his homeland. In his commentary on our verse, Rashi notes that the Torah uses the word “settle,” which connotes permanence, instead of the more temporary “sojourn.”

Rashi explains that the Torah deliberately used this phrase to teach that after his lengthy exile, Yaakov desired to finally settle down and live in tranquility. Hashem rejected Yaakov’s request, maintaining that in light of the tremendous reward waiting for the righteous in the World to Come, it is inappropriate for them to seek comfort in this world as well. As a result, Yaakov’s suffering continues as the parashah unfolds with the kidnapping of his beloved son Yosef.

It is difficult to understand the error in Yaakov’s reasoning. If he sought a bit of peaceful tranquility after the emotional roller coaster he had just experienced, it could only have been for the purpose of allowing him to focus his time and energy on properly serving Hashem. If so, why did Hashem reject Yaakov’s request, which was rooted in his desire for greater spirituality?

The Brisker Rav answers that while this question seems logical, it is actually based on a false premise. People assume that the ideal situation is one in which they have no distractions so that they can completely focus on serving Hashem with all of their time and resources. In reality, Hashem specifically prefers that people serve Him despite all of their difficulties and preoccupations, as this makes their efforts to serve Him that much more valuable and praiseworthy.

The Mishnah in Avos (2:4) teaches that a person shouldn’t say, “I will study when I have free time,” because he may never find himself with free time. However, in line with our thesis, the Brisker Rav suggested that it can be reinterpreted as follows: A person shouldn’t say, “I will learn when I have free time,” because perhaps Hashem desires the Torah that he studies precisely when he has no free time.

With this understanding of the value of mitzvos performed under sub-par conditions, we can appreciate the following story. One year during the Rosh Hashanah prayers, the Kotzker Rebbe announced to his Chassidim that he knew exactly what they were all praying for. To their astonishment, he proceeded to explain that they were begging Hashem to give them less parnassah, which would leave them with fewer business obligations and more time to study Torah. However, their collective wonder at his apparently prophetic knowledge was quickly dashed, as he continued to inform them of Hashem’s response to their entreaties. Hashem rejected their requests because He specifically prefers the Torah that they struggle to learn in spite of all of their distractions and difficulties.

We live in a society which constantly develops new technological gadgets which promise to save us valuable time. Yet the demands we each face in our individual lives — from family, work and play — seem to only increase with each passing day. At the times when we feel that we would gladly make time for G-d if only He would give us a few moments to catch our breaths, we should remind ourselves that it is specifically the Torah we study and the mitzvos we perform at these pressured moments that give Hashem unparalleled pleasure and pride.

Q: Rashi writes (37:3) that Yaakov loved Yosef more than his other sons because Yosef was born in his old age. According to this, why wasn’t Binyamin, who was born later, even more beloved than Yosef?

Q: On Chanukah we add a paragraph to our daily prayers, in which we thank Hashem for the miracles He performed in the days of Mattisyahu ben Yochanan Kohen Gadol. To whom does the appellation “Kohen Gadol” refer: Mattisyahu or Yochanan?

A: The Chizkuni answers that because Yaakov’s beloved wife Rochel died while giving birth to Binyamin, his love toward Binyamin was somewhat lessened. Rav Mordechai Gifter derives from here that if our love for our children is dependent on our feelings toward our spouse, then how important it is for the sake of our children that we work hard to establish a relationship with our spouse. Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi and the Maharal explain that Binyamin was born seven or eight years after Yosef. During this time, Yaakov assumed that he wouldn’t have any more children, and his extra love for Yosef as his last child was formed and wasn’t diminished even by the subsequent birth of Binyamin. Alternatively, the Maharal notes that Binyamin wasn’t even 10 at this time, and his mind wasn’t developed like his brothers.’ Among the sons who had already matured, Yosef was the youngest and received the most love.

A: Several Rishonim, including the Rambam, Meiri and Tashbatz, maintain that the term Kohen Gadol refers to Yochanan, while Rabbeinu Yerucham, the Sefer HaIkkarim and the Maharsha write that it refers to Mattisyahu.

The standard text of the Gemara states explicitly that Mattisyahu was a Kohen Gadol; however, the Dikdukei Sofrim notes that some editions of the Gemara have a different wording, which says that Yochanan was the Kohen Gadol. Rav Boruch Epstein argues that a historical study of the time period makes it clear that Mattisyahu never served as Kohen Gadol. However, because Mattisyahu acted bravely for the honor of Hashem in successfully leading the battle against the Greeks, he earned the title Kohen Gadol as a way of saying that he was a great and respected Kohen, although only his father Yochanan was a Kohen Gadol in the traditional sense of the word.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email