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The Principle that Saved Yaakov’s Life (Parshas Vayishlach)

parsha sefer bereishis Dec 12, 2019


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There's a story about a man who wanted to be successful. After asking around, and heard about a guru in a far off town who could give him guidance. After a week of searching, he tracked down the guru and knocked on his front door. The guru opened up the door, and asked him what he wanted. Unable to contain himself, he urgently asked: "All I want is to be successful like you. What is the secret to success?" The guru sized him up slowly, before saying in a soft voice: "Meet me tomorrow by the beach at 5 a.m. and I will tell you."


The man showed up at the beach bright and early the next morning, wearing his best suit. He should have worn his bathing suit, because as soon as he got there the guru smiled at him and said, "Walk into the water." The man was confused, but after all the trouble he'd gone through to find this guru, he wasn't going to walk away now. He walked in until the water reached up to his knees, and the guru followed him in. "Okay," he said, "I'm in the water. Now can you please tell me how to be successful?" The guru stared back with a straight face and simply said, "Keep walking". Increasingly confused, the man took a few more steps into the ocean. He and the guru were now shoulder deep in the water. He turned back to the guru and said again: "I listened to your instructions. Now can you please tell me how to be successful?" Without skipping a beat, the guru repeated: "Keep walking." 


When he got nose deep, he was about to turn around once more, but before he could think twice the guru grabbed his head and shoved it under the water. The man struggled and fought, but he couldn't break loose, he couldn't breathe! He continued fighting, but realized that he would soon lose consciousness. Just as his vision began to fade, the guru yanked him up from under the water. The guru held the man's face parallel to his own and asked, "when you were underwater, what did you want most?" The man immediately replied, "to breathe!" The guru stared deep into his eyes and said:"When you want to succeed, as much as you want to breathe, then you'll be successful.


Desire, the most powerful and fundamental human faculty, lies at the very root of the human being. The Ramchal, Rav Chaim Vilozhin, and other Jewish thinkers explain that what you want is who you are. It is clear that on the one hand, we each have a deep yearning to transcend our limitations, to expand beyond our current state, and to connect to something infinite, spiritual, beyond this world. Yet, at the same time, human beings have a deep craving for most worldly, physical, and transient pleasures. Which of these is our true desire? Maybe deep down we are purely spiritual, lacking any physical desires, whereby our pull towards earthly things is simply a corruption of our true nature. Or maybe, we are simply physical beings, and our pull towards physicality is a reflection of our limited nature. Furthermore, if we are supposed to live spiritual lives, is the ideal to transcend, and disconnect from the physical altogether, sitting on a mountaintop and meditating on our naval? This question brings us to a deep idea in this week's parsha, Vayishlach.


Im Lavan Garti


When Yaakov reunites with Esav at the beginning of this week’s parsha, he proclaims: "Im Lavan garti" (32:5). Rashi explains that this statement hinted to the fact that Yaakov maintained all of his learning and mitzvah observance while living in Lavan's household. Lavan was a crooked and manipulative cheat, and living in his household was a stark departure from the honesty and righteousness of Yitzchak’s household, thus posing a potential challenge to Yaakov’s spiritual vitality. Therefore, it was a tremendous accomplishment for Yaakov to maintain his spiritual growth while living in Lavan's house for 20 years. We must ask, however, how he accomplished such a feat.


If we trace our way back to Yaakov's journey from his parents’ home, we’ll recall that he spent fourteen years learning in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever before arriving at Lavan’s domain. It’s plausible to suggest that Yaakov viewed these fourteen years as an essential and fundamental preparation necessary in order for to spiritually succeed during his stay at Lavan. In other words, there was a dire need to bolster his spiritual foundation before entering an environment of such depravity; it therefore appears as if the phrase "Im Lavan garti" is an exclamation that Yaakov's fourteen years learning at Shem and Ever helped him overcome the trials and tribulations that Lavan posed, warding off his bad influence. This now poses a major question: why would Yaakov need to leave the house of Yitzchak and Avraham, a place of tremendous Torah consciousness, in order to learn for fourteen years with Shem and Ever? What did they have to offer that the Avos couldn't provide? Why not go to Avraham or continue learning with Yitzchak?


Avraham's Gift to the World


In order to understand this, we must first understand what Avraham represented, and what he brought to the world. If someone were to ask you, "what is Avraham famous for?", most people would immediately say "monotheism". Many assume that Avraham taught the world of Hashem's existence. However, this cannot be the case. Adam clearly knew that Hashem existed, and so did Noach, who lived just a couple generations before Avraham. Even if you want to say that people forgot in the time between Noach and Avraham, we know this is not true: Shem and Ever were both alive before Avraham and were teaching Torah- meaning that Avraham was not the first to teach of Hashem’s existence. If so, what did Avraham introduce to the world?


Some suggest that while Shem and Ever learned Torah, they did so in private, away from society. Thus, Avraham was the first one to openly teach Hashem's existence to the world; in a sense, Avraham was the first "Ba'al Kiruv", the first to bring Torah out to the masses. However, there is another profound approach to this quandary, one which will force us to take a step deeper into the nature of spirituality.


Perspectives on Approaching the Physical 


Many spiritual schools of thought view the physical world as lowly and dangerous; as such, it must be avoided to whatever extent possible. In order to live a spiritual life, one must escape the physical. This is why spiritual systems such as Buddhism prescribe meditation, abstinence, and denying any hint of physical desire. In such a system, the ideal is to sit isolated on a mountaintop and meditate on your navel. 


Historically, this was the spiritual system of Shem and Ever. They understood the dangers of the physical world- they witnessed the evil and destruction of both the Dor Ha’Mabul and Dor Ha’flagah, and decided that in order to maintain their spirituality, they must remove themselves from this physical and lowly world.


Avraham's Revelation


Avraham, however, taught a novel, idealistic approach to life. He understood that while the physical can be dangerous if misused, the ideal is not to transcend the physical, but rather to usethe physical in order to reflect something higher. In other words, he understood the ideal Jewish spiritual system.


Think, how many mitzvos are commandments of the mind? Almost none! You can count them on your hands: Believe in Hashem, love Hashem, be in awe of Hashem, don't be jealous, and just a few others. The overwhelming majority of mitzvos are physical actions which connect you to the spiritual source, Hashem! The act is physical, with the spirituality contained within that physical act. We eat matzah, shakea lulav,blow shofar, and wear tefillin; all actions, all physical. We don't believe in transcending the physical, we believe in using the physical to connect to the transcendent.


Avraham brought this idea into the world. Avraham's mitzvah was bris milah, the mitzvah which reflects the idea of taking the most physical and potentially animalistic organ, and uplifting it to the spiritual. As the Maharal explains, it's done on the eighth day, since it represents going beyond the natural. Seven is the number of the natural- all physical and natural components of this world are built off sevens: seven days in the week, seven notes in the musical scale, seven colors in the spectrum of light. Eight represents going beyond the natural, which is why bris milah is done on the eighth day; we take the physical, and use it to transcend. [This is also why the miracle of Chanukah lasted eight days, and is why it occurred through oil- shemen, which has the same shoresh as shemonah- eight.]


A further reflection of this idea is the fact that Avraham’s name has the gematria (numerical value) of 248. We have 248 limbs in our physical body, and we have 248 mitzvos aseh, active commandments. Each of these commands is an opportunity to use and uplift a component of our physical body for ultimate spirituality. Rashi explains that Avraham brought people closer to Hashem by having them make brachos on food. Making a bracha is connecting the physical food and pleasure you are receiving back to its spiritual source. Avraham's mission was to teach that the physical world stems from Hashem, the spiritual root; the physical is in no way disconnected from the spiritual. 


Shem and Ever


We can now go back and answer our question. While Avraham represented a Torah and spirituality deeply connected to the physical world, Shem and Ever represented a spirituality which transcends this world, a spirituality Yaakov desperately needed to connect to before entering Lavan's domain. Yaakov was about to enter a spiritually hostile environment, an environment contradicting everything Yaakov stood for. In order to protect himself and his spiritual growth during this phase, and successfully build the foundation for Klal Yisrael and the twelve shevatim, Yaakov needed to learn from those who succeeded in such hostile conditions. Shem and Ever experienced the evils of both the Dor Ha'Mabul and the Dor Ha'flaga, and had built a system of learning which protected them from such challenges. While Yaakov had already embraced Avraham's Torah and ideology, he also needed some time with Shem and Ever in order to succeed in the next stage of his journey. Each provided something essential for Yaakov’s development. Thus, when Yaakov tells Esav "Im Lavan Garti", he’s proclaiming: “Lavan wasn't able to destroy anything I’ve built. Avraham’s Torah helped build me, Shem and Ever’s Torah helped protect me".


The Power of Ratzon


Going back to our introductory story, the only way Yaakov was able to succeed was because he desired it with every fiber of his being. Rashi quotes the midrash saying that not once during his entire fourteen years of learning in the beis medrash of Shem and Ever did Yaakov go to bed. Every night, he would fall asleep at his seat, immersed in Torah and spiritual growth. Yaakov wanted this, he lived this, he became this. But we need to understand the true depth of Yaakov's desire. He was able to build the ultimate synthesis, whereby he fully transcended the physical world, like Shem and Ever, and yet, was able to simultaneously bring the transcendent down to the immanent and physical, like Avraham. He lived a life of complete harmony, tiferes. Both Avraham and the house of Shem and Ever were specialists in their form of spirituality; Yaakov was the ultimate harmony.


What Do You Want?


One of the most daunting, but worthwhile exercises you can perform is the “want exercise”. It simply requires you to ask yourself: "What do I really want in life?" You need to be completely honest. After answering, ask yourself, "Why do I want that?" Once again, you must be completely honest. Then ask yourself again, why do I want that?" Keep doing this until you get to something that you want for no external reason, something you want simply because you want it. This desire, this want, is your underlying desire- it is what’s driving everything else in your life. Thisis your very root, the source of your entire existential drive.


According to Jewish thought, this underlying want [ratzon] within each of us, is to fulfil our unique purpose in life, to actualize our potential, to live the life we were meant to live. To live a life of Torah, growth, and contribution. It also happens to be that when you live this type of life, you live a life of happiness, fulfillment, and deep contentment.


Within Jewish thought, this underlying desire (ratzon) within each of us is to fulfill our unique purpose in life, to actualize our potential, to live the life we are meant to live. Hashem designed us so that this type of life- one of Torah, growth, and contribution- generates immense happiness, as well as feelings of fulfillment and deep contentment. So many mistakenly interpret their underlying drive to be happiness, and then the try to fulfill that want through all types of other outlets, like money, fame, or physical pleasure. But the root yearning within each of us is a genuine expression of our higher and best self, our tzelem Elokim! Our goal in life is to fully get in touch with this root want, to harness it, and then fully express it into the world. Happiness is not out root want, it’s what manifests once we are in touch with our root want- becoming our best and highest selves.


So close your eyes and ask yourself honesty: "What do I really want in life?" Who do I want to be? What kind of life do I want to live? Now, open your eyes, and go make that your reality.


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