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Achieving proper balance in life

R’ Yehonasan Gefen (Parsha Vayehi)

The book of Genesis culminates with the eternal blessings that Jacob bestowed on his sons. Each son received a unique blessing that catered exactly to his talents and needs. At the end of the blessings, the Torah states that Yaakov blessed them again. What was this new blessing? Rashi explains that, with this final blessing, Jacob included each son in every other son’s blessing. For example, Judah was blessed with the strength of a lion, but with this final blessing, all of his brothers also received this trait of strength.[1] Rashi’s explanation, however, raises a new problem: if every brother was blessed with what every other brother received in his own personal blessing, then what was the significance of blessing them individually at all?!

The Maharal answers that Jacob’s final blessing did not make them equal in every area but merely gave them an aspect of each other’s blessing; each one remained strongest in the area that he was personally blessed. Judah, for example, was blessed with a higher level of strength than his brothers, but this final blessing gave each other brother a certain element of that trait.[2]

Why did each brother need a certain degree of each blessing? Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits explains that a person can specialize in a particular area, but he must also have some propensity in other areas. This concept applies in numerous spheres, including one’s role in life, his character traits, and learning Torah. With regard to one’s role in life, there are many roles that each of us must play - we must be fathers or mothers, husbands or wives, friends, children, teachers, colleagues, and so on. A person may wish to pay particular attention to one area, such as parenting, and this is a great thing. However, he must not overly focus on that area to the exclusion of everything else. It is vital that a person spend time devoting himself to being a good father, but if this is all that he does all day, then his other roles in life will invariably suffer. We must know how to balance work, spending time with our wives and children, learning Torah, doing acts of kindness, and all of the other functions that an observant Jew must fulfill. A good indication that one is over-emphasizing one area is that other areas are suffering. For example, a person may be spending plenty of time with his family, but if he is not able to learn any Torah, then something is amiss.

The necessity for balance is particularly important in the sphere of character traits. For example, most people have a natural tendency toward either kindness or strictness, and we tend to focus the majority of our time and energy on that one trait. For example, a naturally kind person is more likely to emphasize helping others over working on self-discipline. While it is natural and correct for a person to focus on his strengths, it seems that a great deal of one’s reward for growth comes in areas that do not come naturally to him. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky notes that the Forefathers faced their greatest tests in areas that were opposed to their natural strengths. Abraham, the consummate giver, faced the incredible test of the binding of Isaac (the Akeida), where he had to overcome his great sense of mercy and be prepared to kill his son.[3] Jacob’s greatest challenges required him to outsmart evil people using the tool of falsehood, the antithesis of his trait of honesty.

The need to develop a balance in one’s life is apparent in the area of learning Torah. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) says, “If there is no Torah, then there can be no derech eretz,[4] and if there is no derech eretz, then there can be no Torah.”[5] The Rambam comments that both aspects complement each other: one cannot overly focus on learning Torah without any emphasis on improving his character, and, likewise, one cannot effectively develop one’s character traits without learning Torah. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter was once asked why he encouraged his students to spend so much time on the study of mussar, which emphasizes self-growth, thereby sacrificing a higher level of greatness in Torah. He answered by discussing a question in the laws of saying blessings: if a person has in front of him a full piece of food (known as a Shalem) and a larger piece of the same food which is not complete (ie. it is broken in pieces, known as a Gadol)), then it is a question of what is bigger versus what is complete - which should a person bless on? The law is that one must bless on the full piece even though it is smaller. So, too, a person who learns Torah but also works on their traits (a “Shalem”) is on a higher level than someone who is more learned but has a less refined character (a “Gadol”).

We learn many lessons from the specific blessings that Jacob bestowed on his sons. They also teach us that whilst a person may specialize in a particular area, he has an obligation to be complete and balanced in all areas. This is a demanding task, but Jacob blessed all of the Jewish people with the potential to achieve it. May we all reach true balance.

[1] Vayechi, 49:21.

[2] Gur Aryeh, 49:21, Sk 22.

[3] For the challenge of Isaac, see the Gemara in Shabbos, 89b. Also see Michtav M’Eliyahu, 2nd Chelek, Parshas Lech Lecha, p.162-3.

[4] Derech Eretz can have a number of meanings - in this instance, it refers to having refined character traits.

[5] Pirkei Avos, 3:17.

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