To find the strength to rise, we must let ourselves face hardship

Genesis 37:1-40:23
Amos 2:6-3:8

To reach spiritual heights one often has to fall into the depths. This is a fundamental teaching of Jewish mysticism, found both in Kabbalah and Chassidic teaching. Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, an exemplar of other early Chassidic masters, comments that “a person will fall from his high spiritual level and no longer feel pleasure, only to exert himself in spiritual practice and rise to an even higher level.” He adds that this dynamic ebb and flow of spiritual connection is a sign of God’s great love for us.

This week’s parashah offers a glimpse into the human struggle to acknowledge the fall and rise of the human spirit. The portion begins with Jacob’s return home after his surprisingly peaceful reunion with Esau. We can imagine Jacob’s relief at not having to fight him, having lived in fear of his brother for 21 years. He now returns home, a settled family man, able at last to enjoy life with his wives, his children and his flocks. Thus the parashah begins: “Va-yeshev Ya-akov — Jacob dwelled in the land of his ancestors.”

Rashi, however, is not so sanguine about this beginning. Mindful of midrashic teaching on the word “va-yeshev — to be settled,” Rashi comments, “Jacob wished to live in ease, so this trouble in connection with Joseph suddenly came upon him.” This is not a morbid, superstitious notion that bad things are just waiting to happen to us. Rather it suggests an essential life-lesson: to grow into spiritual maturity we must continue striving and working. To be alive is to continue to struggle with the challenges and tests we are given. Resting on our laurels, desiring to sit calmly and unbothered in life is not productive to our spiritual growth.

From the mystical, psycho-spiritual perspective, this insight helps to explain why the Holy Blessed One must reveal to Abraham at the very beginning (Gen. 15) that his offspring will suffer exile and slavery in Egypt. As Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav teaches in Likkutei Moharan, to reach a higher level of service of God one must descend as part of the very process of ascent. This is also epitomized in the story of Joseph. He is “thrown down into the pit” by his brothers (Gen. 37:24); he is “taken down to Egypt” (Gen. 39:1). For Joseph, it is only through his being thrust down that he is able to rise to both his temporal and spiritual greatness. So, too, for us: Through the challenges of life and even through our greatest failures we might experience a greater spiritual ascent.

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, in his book the Sefat Emet, offers a similar insight about the meaning of Chanukah, which begins Sunday, Dec. 25, at nightfall. He interprets the eight nights of Chanukah as representing the promise of human wholeness (since kabbalistically the number eight symbolizes Binah, the aspect of non-duality). Just as a little bit of oil burned for eight full days, so too, under the threat of Hellenistic culture, our holiness within was diminished until only a tiny bit remained in the Jewish soul. Battle-weary, the people had no strength left to attain wholeness.

In this, says the Gerer Rebbe, lies the miracle of Chanukah. Through the compassion of the Divine, the tiny point of holiness within them miraculously burned for eight full days; that is, led them to the high spiritual level of returning to our holy essence. And the Holy Rebbe, addressing himself to our struggle with our own burdens and the difficult challenges of our times, ends his teaching with these words: “This should console our generations as well. Even though we see how low we may sink, we retain our hope that in a single moment, when the time of redemption comes, we may, with God’s help, be carried all the way back to wholeness.”

Rabbi Lavey Derby is spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon and founder of the Neshama Minyan.