Translation to English: Yehoshua Siskin
Welcome. This week’s Torah portion is VaYeitzei. As its name implies, it is a parasha about departure, about going out. The parasha describes how Yaakov Avinu goes out into the world. It’s a journey where he institutes arvit (the evening prayer), dreams the “Jacob’s ladder” dream, marries Leah and Rachel, establishes a family with many children, works for Lavan, his father-in-law, and then returns to Eretz Yisrael.
We will be speaking today about this episode in the life of Yaakov, his departure from Eretz Yisrael and his return.
Yaakov is the third patriarch, is known as “the choicest patriarch”.
The reason for Yaakov’s special status is that his family is the first Jewish family that stays together and complete. With Avraham, we get his son Yishmael, too; with Yitzchak, we get his son Esav, too; this time, with Yaakov, all 12 sons remain united as the 12 tribes of a single family.
Furthermore, this is the first time that one of the patriarchs goes out into the world. This is different from the constant movement of Avraham (the revolutionary, the innovator, the first pioneer of Eretz Yisrael, the lech lecha patriarch, the one always going forth), and this is different from Yitzchak (who is forbidden to leave Eretz Yisrael in order to maintain the path and strengthen the traditions of Avraham within the Land).
But now there is movement in the opposite direction. Yaakov is already the third generation. In a certain sense, all of us are Yaakov, all of us are Yisrael (this is, after all, the name Yaakov receives, which later on will be the name of the entire nation, the Land, the modern state . . . ). We will attempt to learn from Yaakov how to go out into the big outside world and how to return home.
וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה
And Yaakov departed from Beer-Sheva and went towards Charan. (Genesis 28:10)
HaOhr HaChaim HaKadosh, Rav Chaim ben Attar, adds some kabbalistic depth to the opening verse of our parasha. According to him, the parasha hints at the descent of the soul from its source above, to clothe itself in a physical and material body.
Here, the rules that apply to Yaakov’s departure apply to the going out of every soul into the world and to its journey through life. “Each act of the forefathers is a paradigm for their children.” The rules of life that our commentators learn from the parasha have been applicable throughout the generations and answer the question of how to leave the family tent, the home of our parents, for the wide world outside.
1. You Are Important
וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע, וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה
And Yaakov departed from Beer-Sheva and went towards Charan. (Genesis 28:10)
Rashi comments: “Scripture needed only write: ‘And Jacob went to Haran.’ Why did it mention his departure? But this tells [us] that the departure of a righteous man from a place makes an impression, for while the righteous man is in the city, he is its beauty, he is its splendor, he is its majesty. When he departs from there, its beauty has departed, its splendor has departed, its majesty has departed.”
The departure of someone from a certain place makes an impression. There is significance to the presence of every individual in every place. A human being is not just dust. In the last century, as a result of the dehumanization that occurred under communism and Nazism, together with a world population that now exceeds 7 billion souls, the value of the human being, in the opinion of many, has been diminished. Yet the Torah emphasizes the value and influence of every human being, especially that of an honest and righteous individual. Beer-Sheva with Yaakov and Beer-Sheva without Yaakov is not the same Beer-Sheva. Yet today, if the value of the individual tends to be diminished, it’s not because of a fascist regime, but because of the social networks. We count “likes” but who stops to think that behind every “like” there is a soul? People are not recognized as individuals but rather as an undifferentiated mass.
The first verse of the parasha predicts the lifetime path of many of us: Beer-Sheva, in Eretz Yisrael, is named after a “shavuah,” an oath taken before G-d that imparts holiness to that city. Contrast it with Charan, named for “charon af” or anger that characterizes Charan, a place of evil cunning. But we do not always find ourselves in Beer-Sheva. Sometimes we have to go to Charan but, while there, we need to remain Yaakov.
As a matter of fact, when looking at our history, we spent most of our time in Charan and not in Beer-Sheva. So what do you do if you’re in Charan? First of all, you must understand your value, not only by acting righteously, but by influencing others in beneficial ways through your presence.
How do we keep ourselves on a high level when living in corrupt Charan? The answer is surprising: we close our eyes and dream. This is the first act of Yaakov when he leaves the borders of Eretz Yisrael.
2. “I Have a Dream”
וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם כִּי בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ
וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו
וַיִּשְׁכַּב בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא – וַיַּחֲלֹם
And he arrived at the place and lay down to sleep there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place. And he dreamed. (Genesis 28:11-12)
It’s not by chance that the speech considered the greatest of the twentieth century, if not of all time, was the “I have a dream” speech delivered by Martin Luther King in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., when he called for an end to racial discrimination.
First you need a dream, a vision, to know where you are going and why. The verse says “and he placed (the stones) around his head.” There is a famous midrash we hear in kindergarden about the stones shouting to each other: “Let the tzadik put his head on me!” And all the stones argue with each other because each wants that honor, until G-d unites all of them into a single stone.
But the Lubavitcher Rebbe adds here another: notice, he says, that Yaakov first puts the stones around his head. When he goes out into turbulent and hostile surroundings, he first of all keeps his head, holding on to his values and his perspective, making sure his dream and vision are intact. It’s written in Psalms (128:2),
יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ כִּי תֹאכֵל, אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ
If you eat the toil of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is good for you.
“The toil of your hands” and not “the toil of your head.” Regarding parnassa or making a living, it’s all about your hands. Your head needs to concentrate and stay focused, not to get confused by your work and lower your level of holiness. Yaakov goes out to seek his fortune but first he must guard his head and his thoughts, and not let himself become confused by the world out there. The world is a confusing place and that’s why the word for world is “olam,” which is derived from “he’elem,” which means hidden. The world that our eyes see hides the truth. Therefore, we have to keep our heads and our dreams, to always remember the goal, which is spiritual.
Indeed, Yaakov closes his eyes and merits the famous “Jacob’s ladder dream.”
וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה
וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ
וְהִנֵּה ה' נִצָּב עָלָיו ויאמר
אֲנִי ה' אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ וֵאלֹהֵי יִצְחָק
הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ, לך אתננה ולזרעך
וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ
וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה
וְנִבְרֲכוּ בְךָ כָּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה וּבְזַרְעֶךָ
וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ
וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵךְ
וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת
כִּי לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם עָשִׂיתִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ
And behold! a ladder was set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it. And behold, the Lord was standing over him, and He said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed. And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall gain strength westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth and through your seed. And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you." (Genesis 28:12-15)
In the above verses, notice that “and behold,” implying surprise, appears four times. This is an unexpected turn of events. Yaakov leaves his tent, the innocence of someone who learns Torah all day and, all of a sudden, something new happens.
This dream has both national and personal significance. Our sages say that divine angels, representing the nation of Israel, go up and down on the ladder. But divine angels also go up and down within Yaakov, within every human being.
Yaakov’s dream represents continuous ascent and descent, the ups and downs which have constituted our history throughout the generations. Again and again we find an anti-Hollywood or anti-fairy tale script in the Torah, with no “and they lived happily ever after” ending. The stories told in the Torah are complex and drawn-out. Ups and downs. But this is the truth, this is our life. Am Yisrael goes into exile contending with powerful kingdoms and the individual goes into exile facing imposing challenges.
When will this transformation of a dream into reality occur? We are in the middle of this transformation. The ups and downs will continue and the blessings promised to Yaakov will persist – blessings also meant for us today. In “Akeidat Yitzchak,” Rav Yitzchak Arama writes: “He (G-d) makes His promise for all time, and means to include the entire nation . . . and even if this promised end will be delayed and come late, do not fear or be dismayed ‘for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.’”
This is an unmistakable divine promise regarding our redemption and any delay is only temporary, even if it hurts.
3. The Dream Empowers You
וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב רַגְלָיו וַיֵּלֶךְ אַרְצָה בְנֵי קֶדֶם
Now Jacob lifted his feet and went to the land of the people of the East. (Genesis 29:1)
Our sages comment: Since he was given such good news, his heart lifted up his feet and he walked with a light step.
And later on:
עוֹדֶנּוּ מְדַבֵּר עִמָּם וְרָחֵל בָּאָה עִם הַצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִיהָ כִּי רֹעָה הִיא. וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָה יַעֲקֹב אֶת רָחֵל בַּת לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ וְאֶת צֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב וַיָּגֶל אֶת הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת צֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ
While he was still talking with them (the shepherds), Rachel came with her father's sheep, for she was a shepherdess. And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of Laban, his mother's brother, and the sheep of Laban, his mother's brother, that Jacob drew near and rolled the rock off the mouth of the well, and he watered the sheep of Laban, his mother's brother. (Genesis 29:9-10)
Rashi comments that Yaakov removes the rock as if “extracting a cork from a bottle.” Keep in mind that Yaakov has spent his life learning. Unlike Esav, he has not spent his time as a hunter, much less as a body builder involved in physical training. So how does he succeed in lifting and rolling a gigantic stone out of the mouth of a well? The answer is heart. If you absolutely must do something – you do it. Yaakov raised the stone with the help of his heart, not his muscles. Earlier, “his heart lifted up his feet” and now “his heart lifted up his hands.”
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, the legendary teacher from the Mir yeshiva comments: “As part of the prayer for rain, in the liturgical poem ‘Zechor Av,’ we say: ‘He (Jacob) united his heart and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well of water – for his sake, do not hold back water.’ What are we requesting? For the sake of the heart of Yaakov, do not hold back water.” (And, incidentally, now is the time that we need to pray for rain in Israel.) We don’t pray in the merit of Yaakov because he was a superhero or superman who possessed great physical strength. It’s not about physical power but about willpower. Willpower is stronger. At moments of crisis, we can discover powerful inner forces and fiery enthusiasm that go above and beyond the capacity of mere physical prowess.
This is something very basic that Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains in these words: “Natural forces in a human being depend on spiritual forces and the natural forces draw their vitality from the spiritual ones. When a person acts with all the forces of his soul, he has the power to far exceed regular human strength. And in the merit of “the united heart” of Yaakov, who united all of his spiritual forces to perform acts of kindness, we request (from G-d): “Do not hold back (rain) water.”
In many of his writings, Rav Chaim explains that acts such as Yaakov at the well are not miracles, that nature has not changed. A human being has the capacity to go beyond natural limits. Another example of this is when Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, stretches out her hand to save baby Moshe when he is floating in his basket in the Nile. She has such a strong desire to save him that her hand stretches out beyond its natural capacity. In other words, our potential is much greater than we think. And this, of course, Rav Chaim says, is also correct regarding Torah study in which we need to go above and beyond.
There is a song in Hebrew titled “A Woman Builds, A Woman Destroys.” This is very true. A spouse influences us and our abilities. Two factors give Yaakov strength: his faith and his future wife.
Rachel gives him the strength to take the stone from the well but there is another kind of woman/wife that when you are with her you do not even have the strength to move a pebble.
Everything we said up till now can be brought into our lives. A person goes off to start a new job, to join the army, to build a house, to volunteer, to move from one residence to another, to leave high school, yeshiva, and, suddenly, he is in a wider world. But he needs to remember that he has value in whatever situation or place he chooses to be, that he needs to dream big and that this dream will give him physical strength.
4. The Dream Makes Time Fly
וַיַּעֲבֹד יַעֲקֹב בְּרָחֵל שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים וַיִּהְיוּ בְעֵינָיו כְּיָמִים אֲחָדִים בְּאַהֲבָתוֹ אֹתָהּ
So Jacob worked for Rachel seven years, but they appeared to him like a few days because of his love for her. (Genesis 29:20)
How do you see time?
ויהי בימים הרבים ההם וימת מלך מצרים
“The time spent in sighing is called many days but the time spent in happiness is called a few days, as the verse states “they (seven years) appeared to him like a few days because of his love for her.” (Midrash)
Our emotional condition influences our perception of time. At a time of sighs, time passes slowly. When there is love and hope, time flies.
5. Notice Where You Are
Do you know any Israeli shlichim/emissaries who, in the end, leave Israel and settle in the place where they were sent? . . . And so, we always need to remember that our goal is to return to Beer-Sheva or to turn the whole world into Beer-Sheva. It’s forbidden to become a Charanite. Yaakov eventually starts sending signals that the time has come to return home and this trend in his thinking happens for a few reasons. First of all:
וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה רָחֵל אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל לָבָן שַׁלְּחֵנִי וְאֵלְכָה אֶל מְקוֹמִי וּלְאַרְצִי
It came to pass when Rachel had borne Yosef, that Yaakov said to Lavan, "Send me away, and I will go to my place and to my land.” (Genesis 30:25)
In other words, it is hard to raise children in this environment. And now finally Rachel, too, has a son, but there is no assurance that children will grow up properly in the household of Lavan. The future of Avraham’s legacy is still fragile; Jacob is only the third generation, nothing is certain.
And then we read a verse that tells us things have changed and Yaakov must act now:
וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב אֶת פְּנֵי לָבָן וְהִנֵּה אֵינֶנּוּ עִמּוֹ כִּתְמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם
And Yaakov saw Lavan's face and, behold, he was not disposed toward him as [he had been] yesterday and the day before. (Genesis 31:2)
A listener to the weekly shiur, Arik Kramer, sent me words from Rav Avraham Kotler on this verse. “What happened to the face of Lavan? Nothing, his face did not change. But Yaakov felt that he himself was changing. All these years he looked at the face of Lavan as that of an evil person and kept his distance from him. There was no possibility of assimilation. However, daily contact with Lavan had its influence and Yaakov began to get used to him. Suddenly he looked at Lavan and noticed that he did not recoil from him as before. ‘And Yaakov saw Lavan’s face and was not disposed towards him as yesterday and the day before.’ In other words, he has already begun to get used to being around this cheating liar. This contact does not bother him. And this fact – that it does not bother him – is what bothers him. Yaakov Avinu teaches us to try and pay attention to such moments of truth in our lives.”
Not being bothered by our environment can have serious consequences. An Israeli woman who moved to America once told me about the moment when she first stopped living according the later “Israeli clock” after she had gotten used to living according to the earlier “American clock.” This was the moment that she understood that she would not be returning to Israel.
A friend who always took pains to avoid using certain words told me that, under the influence of friends at work, she began, without even noticing it at first, to use those words and now, to her chagrin, she had gotten accustomed to using them.
6. To Be Understood By Those Around Us
There is an expression in Chassidut – “in an appropriate manner.” We need to do things, even the holiest things, in an appropriate manner. This awareness accompanies Yaakov all along the way. For example, he arrives at the well and sees many flocks of sheep and a group of shepherds and speaks to them appropriately.
וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם יַעֲקֹב אַחַי מֵאַיִן אַתֶּם וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵחָרָן אֲנָחְנוּ
And Yaakov said to them, “My brothers, where are you from?” And they said “We are from Charan.” (Genesis 29:4)
Yaakov addresses the shepherds with a tone of pleasantness, friendship, and respect. Despite the difference between his background and theirs and the gap between them, he is friendly. Another example comes from the Pesach Haggadah when we read that “Lavan wanted to uproot everything.” Yet, when Yaakov meets Lavan who is chasing after him, we read:
וַיִּחַר לְיַעֲקֹב וַיָּרֶב בְּלָבָן, וַיַּעַן יַעֲקֹב וַיֹּאמֶר לְלָבָן מַה פִּשְׁעִי מַה חַטָּאתִי כִּי דָלַקְתָּ אַחֲרָי
And Yaakov was angry, and he quarreled with Lavan, and he answered and said to Lavan, "What is my transgression? What is my sin, that you have pursued me?” (Genesis 31:36)
In the book “Otzroteinu” (Our Treasures), Rav Ovadia Chen writes:
“Ya’akov is truly angry. He almost explodes in a fit of rage. Look at the verse. At the beginning, it’s written ‘and he was angry and quarreled,’ but afterwards ‘and he answered and said.’ Restraint prevails. Yaakov overcomes himself, rules over his emotions, and chooses to speak with pleasantness and not with harshness because harsh speech does not achieve anything. This is his way of life.”
The most outstanding example of respectful speech occurs in regards to Yaakov’s return to Eretz Yisrael.
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל יַעֲקֹב שׁוּב אֶל אֶרֶץ אֲבוֹתֶיךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתֶּךָ וְאֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ
And the Lord said to Jacob, "Return to the land of your forefathers and to your birthplace, and I will be with you." (Genesis 31:3)
Compare this verse where Yaakov hears the message from G-d about returning home to the nine verses that follow.
וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב וַיִּקְרָא לְרָחֵל וּלְלֵאָה הַשָּׂדֶה אֶל צֹאנוֹ
. וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶן רֹאֶה אָנֹכִי אֶת פְּנֵי אֲבִיכֶן כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ אֵלַי כִּתְמֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם וֵאלֹהֵי אָבִי הָיָה עִמָּדִי
וְאַתֵּנָה יְדַעְתֶּן כִּי בְּכָל כֹּחִי עָבַדְתִּי אֶת אֲבִיכֶן
וַאֲבִיכֶן הֵתֶל בִּי וְהֶחֱלִף אֶת מַשְׂכֻּרְתִּי עֲשֶׂרֶת מֹנִים וְלֹא נְתָנוֹ אֱלֹהִים לְהָרַע עִמָּדִי
אִם כֹּה יֹאמַר נְקֻדִּים יִהְיֶה שְׂכָרֶךָ וְיָלְדוּ כָל הַצֹּאן נְקֻדִּים וְאִם כֹּה יֹאמַר עֲקֻדִּים יִהְיֶה שְׂכָרֶךָ וְיָלְדוּ כָל הַצֹּאן עֲקֻדִּים
וַיַּצֵּל אֱלֹהִים אֶת מִקְנֵה אֲבִיכֶם וַיִּתֶּן לִי
וַיְהִי בְּעֵת יַחֵם הַצֹּאן וָאֶשָּׂא עֵינַי וָאֵרֶא בַּחֲלוֹם וְהִנֵּה הָעַתֻּדִים הָעֹלִים עַל הַצֹּאן עֲקֻדִּים נְקֻדִּים וּבְרֻדִּים
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי מַלְאַךְ הָאֱלֹהִים בַּחֲלוֹם יַעֲקֹב וָאֹמַר הִנֵּנִי
וַיֹּאמֶר שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה כָּל הָעַתֻּדִים הָעֹלִים עַל הַצֹּאן עֲקֻדִּים נְקֻדִּים וּבְרֻדִּים כִּי רָאִיתִי אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לָבָן עֹשֶׂה לָּךְ
. אָנֹכִי הָאֵל בֵּית אֵל אֲשֶׁר מָשַׁחְתָּ שָּׁם מַצֵּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָדַרְתָּ לִּי שָׁם נֶדֶר עַתָּה קוּם צֵא מִן הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וְשׁוּב אֶל אֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתֶּךָ
So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to the field, to his flocks.
And he said to them, "I see your father's countenance, that he is not disposed toward me [as he was] yesterday and the day before, but the God of my father was with me.
And you know that with all my strength I served your father.
But your father mocked me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not permit him to harm me.
If he would say thus, 'Speckled ones shall be your wages,' all the animals would bear speckled ones, and if he would say thus, 'Ringed ones shall be your wages,' all the animals would bear ringed ones.
Thus, God separated your father's livestock and gave it to me.
And it came to pass at the time the animals came into heat, that I lifted my eyes and saw in a dream, and behold, the he goats that mounted the animals were ringed, speckled, and striped.
And an angel of God said to me in a dream, 'Jacob!' And I said, 'Here I am.'
And he said, 'Now lift your eyes and see [that] all the he goats mounting the animals are ringed, speckled, and striped, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. (Genesis 31:4-12)
Many commentators have discussed these verses. Rav Simchah Zissel Broide, who was head of Yeshivat Hevron for 40 years, writes in his book “VeSam Derech” as follows: “When we look into this parasha, we discover something wonderful: although, through prophecy, Yaakov was told to leave the house of Lavan and return to his father’s house, and despite the fact that Yaakov was holy in the eyes of Rachel and Leah and, even more so, that he tells them they must leave now because G-d told him in a prophecy to do so – despite all this, Yaakov saw a need to explain in detail everything that happened with Lavan and how that led up to this moment.”
In other words, even though Yaakov heard a divine command he appeals to the mind and heart with simple logic and is thus able to persuade Rachel and Leah to go with him. This is an important principle in so many areas of life: even when you are certain of your truth, you must carefully explain and educate others. Not through coercion but through persuasion. Not by giving orders from on high but through helping others understand and internalize your message.
7. Work Ethic
“From Yaakov Avinu, the world can learn what a ‘work ethic’ is and how a worker is supposed to do his job. But from Lavan – the world can learn how not to be an employer and what employers should be forbidden from doing.” (Rav Nebenzahl)
In a world of deceitfulness, Yaakov lays out a path of truth, loyalty, devotion, hard work, honesty, and ethical behavior on the job.
“A person must be exacting with himself when it comes to time (spent at work), and he must work (at his job) with all his strength, for Yaakov the tzadik said: “with all my strength I served your father.” (Rambam)
8. The Foundation – Torah Study
I often see here in the United States the popular book “Ben Torah for Life,” by Rav Aaron Lopiansky. This is a guide for those who leave yeshiva for the working world; how to stay attached to Yaakov Avinu more than to your new boss who does not share your values . . . He mentions the verse “know Him in all your ways,” including in your work. He quotes many sources to the effect that working with honesty, devotion, and loyalty is all about tikkun olam, fixing the world.
Our sages say: “I dwelled with Lavan” – and kept all 613 commandments (the gematria or numerical value of “I dwelled [garti]” equals 613), and I did not learn from his evil deeds. According to the calculations of our sages, Yaakov learned 14 years in a Beit Midrash/study hall. These 14 years are hidden; they do not appear in the Torah text but the sages calculated that Yaakov was cut off and hidden from the world for 14 years. During that time, he studied, solidified his values, improved his spiritual profile, and readied himself for the trials of life. This is an important commentary: facing the trials of life requires preparation. Rav Moshe-Zvi Neria, as the founder of Bnei Akiva yeshivot, wrote a lot about this: we need to sit and increase our Torah learning in proportion to the strength of the surrounding culture’s opposition to this learning.
There is a beautiful song about it, written by Ariel Horowitz, the son of Naomi Shemer. His mother found it hard to learn music seriously and her mother wrote her a letter, Ariel took the letter and wrote this song:
A day of work ended and I went down to the Kinneret
To answer your letter, little girl of mine
It is hard for you now in the city where you are learning
Hard like every beginning is hard
A wind is coming up and the sea is already stormy
Just as your soul is stormy because it is an artist’s soul
And in the middle of the sea I suddenly see a boat
And in it a fisherman who fights the storm
What will the fisherman do – what can he do
In order that the boat will reach the shore
There is only one way he will withstand the storm
If he adds cargo to the belly of the boat
This, my girl, is also the answer to the storm in your soul
You studies are the cargo on your deck
Here the workers are tired and thirsty for your song
But you still need to row
Through all the fugues of Bach
Yaakov’s Blessing to His Sons
Let’s jump many years forward. We come to one of the last utterances of Yaakov Avinu. After he goes down to Egypt and settles there during the final years of his life, Yaakov blesses his grandsons, Efraim and Menashe, as recorded in a most famous verse:
הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל רָע יְבָרֵךְ אֶת הַנְּעָרִים וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ
“May the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths, and may they be called by my name and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they multiply abundantly like fish, in the midst of the land." (Genesis 48:16)
Wait a minute. “May they multiply abundantly like fish in the midst of the land” makes no sense. Fish and land don’t go together. The place of fish is the sea, as everyone knows, and they dry up outside of it. So what is the meaning of this well-known blessing?
The Sefat Emet offers this explanation: “It’s true, the natural place for fish is in the sea. But the nation of Israel will go into exile and live within a strange culture for many long years. We are going to be like fish on dry land.” Despite the fact that we are not always in our natural place and culture, we need to keep up our connection to the sea, to our roots, our origins, our inner spiritual essence. Yaakov faces his grandchildren who live in Egypt and he knows that they, and their descendants, will often be fish out of water and must, nevertheless, retain their spiritual independence, to live in a physical world but keep their connection to the source of “living water” which is Torah. No one knows this better than Yaakov and he gives us the strength to meet every challenge. He blesses Efraim and Menashe – and us, too – that we will be successful in all we do, no matter where we happen to live.
Thank you very much. See you again next week, G-d willing