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

parsha sefer bereishis Dec 02, 2020


There is a story of a man who wanted to be successful. After asking around, he heard about a guru in a far-off town who held the secret to success. He immediately set off to find him, and after weeks of searching, he finally tracked down him down and knocked on his door. The guru opened up the door, but before the guru could even greet him, he blurted out: "All I want is to be successful. What is the secret to success?" The guru slowly looked him up and down, before saying in a soft voice: "Meet me at the beach tomorrow at 5 a.m. and I will tell you the secret to success."


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 the guru saw him, he smiled 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 about to walk away. He waded into the water until it came up to his knees, with the guru following behind him. "Okay," he said, "I'm in the water. Now can you please tell me how to be successful?" The guru stared back - no expression on his face - and simply said, "Keep walking". Becoming more and more 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 followed your instructions. Now can you please tell me how to be successful?" Without skipping a beat, the guru repeated: "Keep walking." 


He took a few more steps; he was now nose deep. He was about to turn around once more and ask the guru what was going on, when his head was suddenly forced underneath the water. He realized that the guru had taken hold of his neck and was holding him 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 replied, "All I wanted was 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 will be successful.”


The Power of Desire (Ratzon)


Desire, the most powerful human faculty, lies at the very root of the human being. The Ramchal, Rav Chaim Volozhin, and other Jewish thinkers explain that what you want, is who you are. And yet, we seem to have conflicting wants. On the one hand, we each have a deep yearning to transcend our limitations, to expand beyond our current state, to connect to something infinite, spiritual, beyond this world. Yet, at the same time, human beings have a deep craving for the most mundane, physical, and transient pleasures. Which of these is our true desire, our true ratzon?

  • Perhaps, at root, we are purely spiritual, and 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.


But perhaps we are more than either of these drives; maybe our deepest root, our deepest desire, is connected to both the spiritual and the physical. This leads us to an important question: What is the meaning and purpose of our desire for physicality, and how does it relate to our drive for spirituality? 


Im Lavan Garti


When Yaakov reunites with Esav at the beginning of Parshas Vayishlach, he proclaims: "Im Lavan garti - with Lavan I have lived."[1] Rashi[2] explains this statement to mean that Yaakov maintained all of his learning and mitzvah observance while living in Lavan's household. Lavan was a crooked, 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. How did he accomplish 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 (study hall) of Shem and Ever between leaving his parents’ home and arriving at Lavan’s domain.[3] Why was this time necessary? Yaakov had spent his entire life surrounded by the Torah and values of Yitzchak and Avraham. Shouldn’t this have been enough to prepare him for the trials and tribulations that he would face in the house of Lavan? What did Shem and Ever offer that which Yaakov had not already received from Avraham and Yitzchak?


Avraham's Gift to the World


In order to understand this, let us take a step back and understand Avraham’s worldview and his unique approach to spirituality. If someone were to ask you, "what is Avraham famous for?", your immediate response would likely be "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. If Avraham was not the first to teach of Hashem’s existence, what did he introduce to the world?


Some suggest that while Shem and Ever learned Torah, they did so in isolation, removed from society. Thus, Avraham was the first to openly teach Hashem's existence to the world. In a sense, Avraham was the first "Ba'al Kiruv", the first to bring Torah to the masses. While this may be true, and is indicative of Avraham’s nature,[4] there is another layer to this profound topic. In order to understand Avraham’s unique worldview, we have to take a step back and study different spiritual perspectives.


Spiritual Perspectives


Most spiritual schools of thought are focused wholly on the spiritual; they view the physical world as lowly and dangerous. They therefore claim that the physical should be avoided to the greatest extent possible. In order to live a spiritual life, one must escape the physical, and completely rejecting their physical nature. Therefore, spiritual systems such as Buddhism prescribe meditation, abstinence, and suppression of any hint of physical desire. In such a system, the ideal is to sit isolated on a mountaintop and meditate on our 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 (generation of the flood) and Dor Ha’Flagah (generation of the dispersion), and decided that in order to maintain their spirituality, they had to remove themselves from the physical, lowly world.


Avraham's Revelation


Avraham, however, introduced 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 to use the physical to reflect something higher. In other words, he introduced the ideal Jewish spiritual system.


Think, how many mitzvos are commandments of the mind? Incredibly few! 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, while the intentions and mindset must be infused within it. We eat matzah, shake a lulav, blow shofar, and wear tefillin; all actions, all physical. We don't believe in transcending the physical, we want to use the physical to connect to the transcendent.[5]


This is because the physical world is deeply connected to the spiritual world. Every physical action affects the spiritual realm, creating cosmic ripple effects. This can be compared to when one plays a piano. When a piano key is pressed, a hammer inside the piano strikes the string below, generating the musical sound. The key itself does not create the musical note; it causes a chain reaction, and the sound comes from a different – albeit connected - location.


The same is true of the physical world. Every action creates a corresponding reaction in the spiritual world. In essence, our physical world is like an upside-down puppet show. When a puppeteer pulls the strings from above, he causes the puppets to act down below. When we do physical actions in the physical world, we create cosmic change in the spiritual realm above.[6][7]


This is what Avraham introduced to the world. Avraham's mitzvah was bris milah (circumcision), the mitzvah that epitomizes the idea of taking the most physical and potentially animalistic organ and uplifting it to the spiritual. As the Maharal[8] explains, bris milah is performed specifically on the eighth day, as it represents the process of transcending the natural. Seven is the number of the natural; this is why 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 performed on the eighth day[9]; we take the physical and use it to transcend.[10]


Avraham’s connection to this idea is expressed in his very name.[11] The gematria (numerical value) of the name "Avraham" is 248. There are 248 limbs in the body, as well as 248 mitzvos aseh (positive commandments). Each of these commands is an opportunity to utilize and uplift a part of our physical body for ultimate spirituality. Avraham's mission was to teach and model this truth, that all of physicality is connected to the spiritual and can therefore be used to achieve spiritual perfection.


Shem and Ever


We can now understand what Yaakov gained from learning with Shem and Ever. While Avraham represented a spirituality deeply connected to the physical world, Shem and Ever represented a spirituality which transcends this world, a spirituality that Yaakov needed to connect to before continuing on his journey. Yaakov was about to enter a spiritually hostile environment, Lavan’s domain, an environment contradicting everything Yaakov knew and stood for. While Yaakov stood for truth,[12] Lavan was a man of deceit, one whose speech did not reveal any higher inner truth.[13] Just as Lavan’s words were disconnected from any higher truth, Lavan served to disconnect the physical from the spiritual.[14] In order to protect himself and his spiritual growth during this phase,[15] Yaakov needed to learn from those who had 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 themselves from such challenges, a Torah which was disconnected from the challenges of the physical world. 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 to Yaakov’s development.[16]


The Idealism of Holistic Spirituality


At root, we have a dual desire:

  • To experience a completely spiritual, transcendent existence.
  • To experience a physical, limited existence.

But when we synthesize these two desires, when we use the physical to fully reflect our spiritual purpose, we live an extraordinary life of true oneness. This, however, is not an easy path. Living a holistic, synthesized life requires idealism and constant willpower. It is much easier to transcend the physical world, to escape its temptations and dangers. If we are to engage and uplift the physical, we must be mindful, purposeful, and vigilant.


Going back to our introductory “guru” story, Yaakov was only able to succeed in his mission because he desired it with every fiber of his being. Rashi[17] quotes the midrash saying that not once during his entire fourteen years of learning in the yeshiva 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. He was able to build the ultimate synthesis, fully transcending the physical world- like Shem and Ever - and yet connecting the transcendent to the 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 requires you to ask yourself: "What do I want in life?" Be completely honest with yourself. After answering, ask yourself, "Why do I want that?" 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 that 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. This is your very root, the source of your entire existential drive.


According to Jewish thought, this underlying want (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 in such a way 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 in life to be happiness, and then the try to fulfill that desire 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 get fully in touch with this root want, to harness it, and then fully express it into the world. Happiness is not our root want, it’s what manifests when we are in touch with our root want- becoming our best and highest selves.[18]


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.


[1] Bereishis 32:5.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Rashi- Bereishis 28:11 and Bereishis Rabbah 68:11.

[4] For a more detailed exploration of Avraham’s nature as a ba’al chesed (one who acts with loving-kindness), see chapter on Parshas Naso, section: “Avraham: Ish Chesed”.

[5] It is important to note that one must first transcend the physical world if they are to be successful in using the physical world. This is part of the purpose of Yom Kippur, a day of complete transcendence. For a fuller explanation of this concept, see chapter on the holiday of Pesach (located at the end of this sefer), section: “The Condition: Control”.

[6] Additionally, every time a physical act affects the spiritual world, that spiritual energy ultimately flows back down to impact the physical world. Everything is interconnected. Every single act has omni-importance.

Of course, Hashem also chooses what to bring down from the spiritual world into the physical world. Hashem can choose not to bring a corresponding spiritual flow into the physical world and can also choose to create a proactive spiritual flow into the physical world. (See Nefesh Ha’Chaim [Rav Chaim of Volozhin] and Derech Hashem [Ramchal] for extensive discussion of this topic.)

[7] For more on the purpose of mitzvos, see chapter on Parshas Shemini, sections: “Limited vs. Infinite” and “Hashem as the Makom of the World”.

For a deeper understanding of the relationship between the physical and spiritual world, and how to relate to the infinite, see chapter on the holiday of Shavuos (located at the end of this sefer), section: “The World is a Mashal”.

[8] Tiferes Yisrael- Chapters 1-2.

[9] This is also why the miracle of Chanukah lasted eight days, and is why it was done with shemen, the same shoresh (root) as shemonah, eight.

[10] For a deeper understanding of the relationship between the “seventh” and the “eighth”, see chapter on Parshas Behar regarding Sefiras Ha’Omer, section: “Forty-Nine Days of Building”.

[11] The Hebrew word for name (shem) shares the same root as the word for soul (neshama), because a person’s name reflects their very essence.

[12] Titein emes l'Yaakov.

[13] For a deeper spiritual understanding of speech, see chapter on Parshas Tzav, section: “Speaking: Act of Connection”.

[14] Chazal state that Lavan was Bilaam (See Sanhedrin 105a and Targum Yonasan, Bamidbar 22:5. See also Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Chapter 29). Just as Lavan disconnected the physical from the spiritual, Bilaam was the navi (prophet) of the nations, connected to the spiritual, but at the same time, as Chazal explain, had a bestial relationship with his donkey (Rashi, Bamidbar 22:30). The Hebrew word for donkey is chamor, the same word for the “physical matter”- chomer. (See Maharal, Derech Chaim 5:19. See also Pri Tzaddik Shemos 11). Bilaam was sunk within the physical, unable to harmonize the mundane with the spiritual. Avraham, in comparison, rode his donkey (Bereishis 22:3- vayachavosh can also mean “conquered”), representing his ability to use the physical, not to be used by the physical. This is why Chazal (Avos 5:22) compare and contrast Avraham to Bilaam. Avraham harmonized the physical with the spiritual, while Bilaam lived in contradiction and chaos.

[15] And successfully build the foundation for Klal Yisrael and the twelve tribes.

[16] 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".

[17] Bereishis 28:11, Bereishis Rabbah 68:11

[18] See chapter on Parshas Bechukosai for a more detailed discussion on happiness.


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