This week’s torah portion opens with Jacob’s famous vision, which he dreamt while in flight from his enraged brother Esau. On that historic evening, Jacob saw angels ascending and descending a massive ladder. At the top of the ladder was God, who promised Jacob that he would inherit the land that he was lying on, and that his seed would become very numerous.
And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. (Genesis 28:14)
This pledge of abundant progeny was not unique to Jacob. His grandfather Abraham was promised that his children would be multiplied “as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore.” (Ibid 22:17) This followed an earlier assurance at the Covenant Between the Parts, in which God told his loyal servant to, “look now toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… so shall your seed be.” (Genesis 15:5) Jacob’s father Isaac was similarly promised: “And I will make your seed multiply as the stars of heaven.” (Ibid 26:4)
Why is it that God felt compelled to utilize multiple metaphors when describing the future growth of the Jewish people? Even if some sort of imagery was necessary to convey the true scope of their expansion, why was one example not sufficient? Moreover, what is the significance of comparing the Jewish nation specifically to stars, sand and dust?
Kli Yakar, in his commentary to Genesis 22:17, suggests that each example highlights a different era within the Jewish historical experience. There would be times when our nation would be “on top of the world”, like stars. During these periods, which have sadly come with great infrequency, we would enjoy peace and great success, and be the envy of the world around us.
Then there would be periods of challenge, in which the gentile nations would aim to destroy us, but would repeatedly come up short. This is comparable to sand, which endures continual pounding by the waves of the sea, but manages to survive with its shoreline intact. Finally, there are times when we are truly compared to dust, as we are being trampled by the collective feet of our oppressors.
By utilizing these various metaphors, God was promising our avos that he would not forsake their children. What is more, he assured them that their progeny would continue to grow, numerically and otherwise, despite the many challenges that they would be forced to endure.
Of course, peaks and valleys are part of our personal experiences as well. There are times when we feel that the sky’s the limit. Every day brings new opportunities and much fulfillment. At other times we experience challenges, difficulties that set us back. But the problems are manageable and we find a way to persevere. And then there are the trials that are of such magnitude that we feel as if we are being trampled upon, with no one to turn to for support and guidance.
How can we manage the ups and downs and live a balanced life? The following strategies can help us navigate through the vicissitudes of life and maintain a well-adjusted lifestyle and perspective.
When you’re up:
- Relish the moment – Find ways to celebrate your successes in a manner that deepens your appreciation for what you have. List some things that you can do today that would be impossible without your material or other blessing and good fortune. Then go out and cement the feeling of gratitude with some form of celebration.
- And extend it – Identify opportunities to give, monetarily or with your time, to others in a manner that will help your high moments live on. Recognize that our abundance is not intended to be hoarded but shared. Let your rising tide raise other ships as well.
- Stay balanced – Appreciate the fact that you’re never as good as your successes would lead you to believe. Success in life is the combination of many factors, such as talent and effort. But it also requires a healthy dose of good fortune and divine assistance. Keeping this in perspective will also help you recognize that you are fundamentally the same person even when circumstances change for the worse.
When life throws you a curveball:
- Look for the good – At times of challenge, it becomes easy to get lost in our problems. We begin to look around us and ask why others seem to have it so much easier than we do. Think about the many things that you have and acknowledge that some people lack even these.
- Be confident – You’ve done it before and you will do it again. Remain confident in your strengths and abilities, while seeking ways to expand your skills and capacity.
- And keep the faith –
Recognize that every challenge represents a growth opportunity. God would not
test us if we were guaranteed to fail (see Ramban to Genesis 22:1). If we are
being tested, it must mean that we possess the wherewithal to pass it
- Get up and do – A common response to challenge is inaction and self-pity. Resist that temptation by building positive energy and momentum. Difficult times can present opportunities to recreate one self. Why not take that course and learn new skills? Perhaps it’s time to try a new career pathway or make new social connections. Maybe now is the time to redouble our efforts to learn more or spend more meaningful time with our family.
- Get inspired – Read success stories and inspirational quotes. Remember that some of history’s most noteworthy achievements and achievers were born out of tough times.
We are bound to experience many highs and lows in life. For some, such fluctuation will fall within a relatively tight span. For others, the range will be much wider. Maintaining a positive, balanced outlook, one that helps us to keep all of our experiences in perspective, will go a long way in providing us with the comfort, stability and true happiness that we all seek.