Our parshah of VaYetzei opens as Jacob fled his brother Esau’s wrath and came to live with his uncle Laban. After staying with him for a month, Laban says to Jacob: “Just because you are my brother (meaning, relative) shall you work for me for nothing?” In the end Jacob works for Laban for seven years. His pay was not monetary, but the ability to marry Laban’s daughter, Rachel.
Or Hachaim, one of the great Sephardic commentators, asks two questions: First, who says Jacob was not planning to ask him for remuneration for his work? Second, why did Laban so dislike the prospect of Jacob working for free? After all, Laban was a scoundrel who had no qualms about stealing Jacob’s hard earned possessions. Why would he be so reluctant to accept Jacob’s gift?
A third question can be asked: If Laban did not want Jacob to work for free, why did he wait a month before offering to pay Jacob?
Fourth, why did Laban not ask simply, “How much do you want to get paid for your work?” Why did he have to throw in the words: “Just because you are my brother shall you work for me for nothing?”
The following explanation is based on the Hungarian Chassidic work, Rav Tov, who addresses some of these questions.
When Jacob arrived, Laban said to him: “You are my bone and my flesh (my blood relative).” With these words he invited Jacob to stay with him. However, in the course of the first month of Jacob’s stay with Laban, he discovered something about Jacob he did not know previously.
When Jacob arrived, he thought he was a person no different from himself; someone who had basically the same material interests. Thus, Laban said to Jacob “you are my bones and flesh.” We both share the same physical properties. We are genetically related.
After staying with him for a month, however, Laban realized that he was not his “brother” in the true sense of the word. While he was a blood relative of Jacob—he was his uncle—in terms of their upbringing, goals and aspirations, they could not be further apart. Laban was a materialist, opportunist and the “ends justify the means” type of person, while Jacob was a thoroughly spiritual person. Laban realized that there was a huge, unbridgeable gulf that separated them.
Thus, Laban declared to Jacob, “Are you my brother?”
These words do not mean that despite the fact that he was his brother he still must pay him. On the contrary, he was disabusing himself from the notion that they were brothers. Laban therefore tells Jacob: “Are you my brother? You are as far apart from me temperamentally and spiritually as one could possibly be! How then will you fit into my business? How can we coexist, when we have such disparate interests and goals in life? What can I possibly pay you to make you a contributing partner to my less than holy enterprises?”
Jacob would not feel comfortable working for Laban no matter how much he would pay him. The sole form of remuneration that would suit Jacob, Laban came to realize, had to be one that was of an ethereal nature and not ephemeral. It had to involve a Mitzvah. If Jacob were to become rich without it contributing to his service of G-d and humanity (which is also a service to G-d) he could never feel comfortable with his gain. When one receives something for nothing, it is referred to as “shameful bread.” One cannot enjoy a handout. Human nature is such that we have to earn what we get. And for a person of Jacob’s caliber, earning means doing a Mitzvah.
Laban, in effect, said to Jacob, “since you are obviously not my soul-brother, you will not want to work for me for all the money in the world, because for you it will be considered as if you had received nothing.”
Indeed, the term “for nothing-chinam” employed by Laban here is also found elsewhere in the Torah. When the Jews were in the wilderness they complained abut the manna. They fondly remembered the food they ate in Egypt—“chinam.” What does the word chinam mean there? It cannot possibly mean that they did not have to pay for their food, since they were slaves and broke their backs for the measly rations they received. It was hardly gratis!
Our Sages therefore explain that they meant to say that in Egyptthey did not have to perform any Mitzvot in order to get their food. They had no spiritual obligations. They complained that when they followed Moses into the wilderness everything was quid pro quo. Their needs were provided for them, it would seem, as payment for their commitment to G-d’s commandments. This was a radical departure from their lives in Egypt, to which they were accustomed.
And so Laban sensed that Jacob would not want to work for nothing – without truly earning his right to work and live off this work. in other words, Jacob needed a spiritual connection.
What Mitzvah could Laban possibly give Jacob? If there was a mitzvah that could be observed at that time, one could be sure that Jacob was already engaged in its performance.
There was one Mitzvah, however, that he had not yet performed. He was still single and could not establish a home and a family that would become the nucleus of the Jewish nation, to whom the Torah would be entrusted.
For Jacob, marriage was the Mitzvah par excellence. His love and passion for Rachel was was motivated by his passion to be the one to forge another link in the chain that started with Abraham and Isaac, and would end with the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinaito a Jewish nation. Jacob’s greatest passion was to be an integral link in that chain; a link and a chain that exists to this day.
This analysis can shed some light on the rather puzzling statement made by Jacob when he had to work for seven years to be married to Rachel: Jacob’s hard work for seven years, the Torah teaches us, “felt like a few days because of his love for her.” Isn’t that sentiment counterintuitive? If someone is in love with another, every minute should feel like a year. Yet here seven years felt like a few days.
The answer is that Jacob’s physical passion was an expression of his spiritual passion. In the spiritual world, every minute of preparation for the goal is no less a Mitzvah and source of fulfillment and bliss than the attainment of the goal itself. The journey to the Promised Land is as much the fulfillment of G-d’s will as the actual entry into the land. Thus every day that Jacob was working for the goal of marrying Rachel was creating the mechanism for the future. It was therefore so gratifying and fulfilling because he was becoming a conduit for G-d’s plan.
The lesson from the above is twofold:
First, in order for any of our activities or pursuits to be truly fulfilling it must ultimately be connected with a higher purpose. It must contribute to the betterment of ourselves and the world around us. In short, it must revolve around a Mitzvah.
Second, even when we are engaged in the prefatory stages of a Mitzvah, our joy and enthusiasm should not be any less than it is when we do the Mitzvah itself.
At this point one could raise a question. Why is there is such a clamor for Moshiach and Redemption, especially in the last few decades? As long as we are on the road towards that end, we are doing G-d’s will and we are part of the process. What difference should it make to us that we are not there yet? Isn’t every step along the way part of G-d’s plan and design.
The answer is that there is one fundamental difference between Jacob’s waiting to marry Rachel and our waiting for Moshiach and Redemption.
While Jacob knew that he was destined to raise the family that will forge ahead towards Sinai, he knew that the final outcome of his labor would not be realized in his lifetime. The final outcome was not his mission and challenge. Moving the process along was. He knew that he was but one pivotal link in that chain of events. As such he cherished every moment of it, not only because he knew that in each and every ensuing moment he was one step closer to that end, but also because each step possesses intrinsic value and meaning. In short, it was not his role to complete the process; just to be a part of it.
By contrast, we are now at the “tail end” of the process. All of the Biblical, Talmudic, Kabbalisitc etc. signs point to that which we have been told by the Rebbe on countless occasions that ours is the last generation of exile and the first of Redemption. We cannot be content with the knowledge that we are a crucial link in the chain. Because when one reaches the end of the journey, just “treading water” and not moving forward is not an option. Our generation has been endowed with an unprecedented mission to complete the process, which we hope, pray and trust we are about to do.
To be sure, every moment that we are still here in exile must be filled with meaning, good and therefore cherished. But the focus of our deeds should be to prepare ourselves to greet Moshiach, and internalize the Redemption—thereby completing the process begun by our forbears; crowning their efforts with success.
In our Parshah of Toldot, the Torah relates that Rebecca overheard Isaac asking Esau to bring him some venison so that he could bless him before his death. Rebecca then ordered Jacob to dress himself in Esau’s hairy clothing and present himself as his brother in order to receive these blessings. When Isaac, whose vision was impaired, heard Jacob’s voice and then felt his hands, he exclaimed: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”
These immortal words have been understood by our Sages as a description of the power of the Jewish nation versus its adversaries. While our adversaries rely on their hands, i.e., brute force, the Jewish nation has, historically, resorted to using their voices in prayer and Torah study.
After Jacob left with the blessings, Esau arrived and demanded that he too be given a blessing. Isaac’s response was that “You will live by the sword.” Here, Isaac does not use the metaphor, “the hands are the hands of Esau,” but states quite explicitly that he will live by the sword. We need to understand why prior to Jacob’s receiving of the blessings, Isaac used the metaphor of “the hands of Esau,” but subsequently, upon discovering Jacob’s ruse, he referred to Esau’s sword explicitly? Why didn’t Isaac use the metaphor then as well?
To answer this question we ought to reflect on the entire story of how Esau was so loved by Isaac. How could it be that Isaac preferred Esau, the gruff and uncouth outdoorsman, to the soft-spoken, reverent student, Jacob? How could Isaac have been so misled by Esau? To simply suggest that a man, the caliber of Isaac, could be duped by his own son, is incredulous. One answer is that Isaac foresaw a utopian world that would involve a holy partnership between Jacob and Esau. While Jacob would be better suited for Torah scholarship, meditation and in general, more spiritual pursuits, it was Esau that would eventually provide the support system-the “hands”-for Jacob’s endeavors.
Indeed, Kabbalah teaches us that one can discover even greater treasures of G-dly energy in the more mundane aspects of life. These treasures, however, can only be accessed when one uses the material matters to facilitate Torah study and other spiritual pursuits. This partnership-which will become a reality in the future Messianic Age, as has been prophesied in the Torah-was the ideal that Isaac hoped would have become reality millennia before the Messianic Age. By showing love and affection for Esau, and by preferring to give him his special blessings, Isaac hoped to actualize Esau’s role as a faithful partner to Jacob.
We can now appreciate the deeper meaning of the metaphor the “Hands of Esau,” that Isaac originally employed. When he heard Jacob’s gentle and refined voice combined with his hairy and rough hands, he felt vindicated. This synthesis was a confirmation of Isaac’s dream that the two could and would live together and complement one another. However, that utopian vision did not materialize the way Isaac envisioned it. Isaac subsequently realized that Esau was not suitable for the role of supporter and partner; Esau did not appreciate his own spiritual potential. He was then compelled to recast his prophecy concerning Esau, that his hands would not be supportive but antagonistic and violent. Tragically, Jews would be forced to express their own spirituality not with the help of the nations of the world but through adversity.
In the present day and age, Esau’s legacy was taken over by Western Civilization. At first, the Greeks and Romans-who bequeathed to us Western culture-served as adversaries. They employed every tactic available to them to crush us and to deter us from our Torah mission. The “hands of Esau” were brutal and destructive. But in the end, Isaac’s original vision will certainly come true. Indeed, we are already witnessing the beginning of that process. We are currently living in an age where most countries in the world do not stand in our way and certainly do not impose other religions on us. Moreover, they are supportive to one degree or another of Jewish life and observance. Even the former Soviet Empire that sought to extinguish every trace of the light of Judaism has been transformed into a society that warmly supports Jewish life in all of its manifestations. This radical transformation of “Esau” was what our patriarch Isaac had in mind when he sought to bless Esau. It is also a taste of what is to come with the imminent arrival of Moshiach and the future Redemption that we have been praying for close to 2,000 years. Now is surely the time to accentuate the other side of the equation, the “Voice of Jacob” with greater emphasis on Torah study, specifically the teachings of Torah that deal with the future Redemption.
Torak Portion: Acharei-Kedoshim – Leviticus 16:1-20:27
The Danger of Confusing Transcendence with Habit
By Rabbi YY Jacobson
Every evening I turn my worries over to God. He’s going to be up all night anyway.
– Mary C. Crowley
God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.
– Jacques Deval
“Do not make yourselves gods out of cast metal (1),” the Torah instructs us in the portion of Kedoshim.
How could an intelligent person believe that a piece of metal is god? We could perhaps appreciate how ancient pagan societies attributed divine qualities to powerful, transcendent forces of nature, like the Zodiac signs, the sun, the moon, various galaxies, the wind, fire, water, etc. But why would a thoughtful human being believe god could be fashioned out of cast metal?
Even if we can explain how in the ancient, pagan world such an idea could be entertained seriously, how does this commandment in Torah -a timeless blueprint for human life – apply to our lives today?
I once encountered a beautiful interpretation to these words (2), which is profoundly relevant to the human psyche in all times. What this biblical verse – “Do not make yourselves gods out of cast metal” — is telling us is not to construct a god of a lifestyle and a weltanschauung that has become like “cast metal;” one that is cast and solidified in a fixed mold.
A natural human tendency is to worship that which we have become comfortable with. We worship our habits, patterns, attitudes, routines and inclinations simply because we have accustomed ourselves to them and they are part of our lives. People love that which does not surprise them; we want to enjoy a god that suits our philosophical and emotional paradigms and comfort zones. We tend to embrace the fixed, unchangeable and permanent molten god.
Comes the Torah and says: Do not turn your pre-established mold into your god. Do not turn your habits, natural patterns of thought, fears, inclinations or addictions into a deity. Life is about challenge, growth and mystery. Never say, “This is the way I am; this is the way I do things, I cannot change.” Never think, “This is the world view I am comfortable with; any other way must be wrong.” Rather, you ought to muster the courage to challenge every instinct, temptation and convention; question every dogma, including dogmas that speak in the name of open mindedness, and are embraced simply because you fall back on that which you have been taught again and again. Let your life not become enslaved to a particular pattern just because it has been that way for many years or decades. G-d, the real G-d, is not defined by any conventions; let your soul, too, not be confined by any external conventions. Experience the freedom of your creator.
Judaism never articulated who G-d is and what G-d looks like. What it did teach us is what G-d does NOT look like: G-d ought never to be defined by any image we attribute to Him, hewn by the instruments of our conscious or subconscious needs and aspirations. In Jewish philosophy, never mind in Kabbalah and Chassidic thought, we never speak of what G-d is; only of what He is not: G-d is not an extension of my being or imagination (3).
The common Yiddish term for G-d used by some of the greatest Jewish mystics, thinkers and holy men is “Oybershter,” which means “higher.” Not Creator, not Master, not All-Powerful, etc, but “higher.” What this term represents is this idea: I do not know what He is; all I know is that whatever my definition of truth and reality, whatever my definition for G-d — he is “higher” than that. All I know is that I do not know (4).
Thus, to be open to the G-d of the Hebrew Bible means to be open to never ending mystery, infinite grandeur, limitless sublimity and possibility; it is the profound readiness at every moment of life to open ourselves to transcendence. And what was transcendent yesterday — can become a form of exile today. Transcendence itself must also be transcendent, for it too can become a trap, albeit a subtle and spiritual trap.
And that which remains of your ambitions and desires after you have faced all of your fears and challenged all of your defenses, that is where your will meets G-d’s will (5). At that point of complete humility and sincerity, you become truly one with yourself, one with the inner core of reality.
In the words of the Zohar (6), “No thought, no idea, can grasp Him; yet He can be grasped with the pure desire of the heart.”
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1) Leviticus 19:4.
2) Mei Hasheluach by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, Parshas Kedoshim, p. 118. The author was a brilliant and creative 19th century Chassidic thinker and master, and is known as the Rebbe of Ishbitz. He passed away in 1854.
3) This is a common theme in the writings of Maimonidies in his “Guide to the Perplexed.” See at length Likkutei Torah Parshas Pekudei and references noted there.
4) Sichas Shabbas Parshas Toldos 5751 (1991).
5) See at length Mei Hasheluach ibid.
6) See Zohar Vol. 3 p. 289b. Hemshech 5666 p. 57.
Sunday, March 8, Totrah Portion: Ki Tisa
Moses, the faithful leader of the Jewish people, was devastated when he was told by G-d that his people had worshipped the Golden Calf. When G-d told him that He wanted to destroy them because they had worshipped another g-d, Moses began to plead on their behalf.
In addition to prayer, the Midrash relates, Moses actually acted as a good defense lawyer and argued with G-d about the guilt of the Jewish people on a “technicality.” The crime that they were charged with was idolatry. The prohibition against idolatry was, of course, taken from the first two of the Ten Commandments, where G-d declared, “I am the L-rd your G-d, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage,” followed by: “You shall have no other g-ds in My presence” Moses’ “legalistic” argument, our Sages tell us, was that these commandments were phrased in the singular form: For example, if G-d was making it clear that He was addressing all of the Jewish people, He should have stated, “Lo yihyeh lachem,” You (plural) shall not have any other gods. The Hebrew word lecha, means “you” in the singular form. Thus, Moses argued that in fact the commandments were only clearly addressed to Moses. How can G-d then hold the entire Jewish nation responsible for something they had not been commanded to follow?
At first glance this Midrash is difficult to understand. Did Moses really think that the Ten Commandments were not given to the entire nation? Wasn’t it obvious that G-d wanted all of Israel to hear these commandments? So even if the language wasn’t so clear that He was addressing every individual, wasn’t that the context of these commandments? Thus, Moses entire defense seemed to based on a seemingly dishonest premise.
In truth, the fact that G-d gave the Torah through Moses begs a question, the answer to which will shed light on Moses’ “defense” strategy. Couldn’t G-d have revealed these teachings directly to all of Israel? Why did He need an intermediary?
One answer to this question is that were G-d to have miraculously implanted the Torah in our minds, regardless of our mental and spiritual capacities, the Torah would never have become our Torah. To bring the Torah down to our level, there had to be a hierarchy of sorts. Moses, the greatest intellect and spiritual giant of all time, was able to receive the Torah on his level, which, in turn, he transmitted to the next level so that they could comprehend it and absorb it and then pass it on to the next level or generation.
This process guaranteed that: (a) Every Jew who studies Torah from a worthy teacher will have the benefit of having been linked to an earlier and higher generation (in terms of its proximity to the initial revelation at Sinai). (b) Every Jew will receive the Torah on his or her level and not be overwhelmed by it, as he or she would have been had it been revealed to us spontaneously, indiscriminately and miraculously. (c) Every Jew knows that it is his obligation to pass the Torah on to others, on their level, so that they are completely receptive to it.
We can now appreciate why G-d did, in fact, transmit the Torah to Moses specifically, though He meant to give it to everyone. G-d wanted the Torah to reach and resonate within every Jew, by making the Torah relevant to each and every Jew individually. This He accomplished by transmitting it through the conduit that was Moses.
Thus, when Moses wished to defend the Jewish people’s worshipping of the Golden Calf, Moses’ argument was that the Torah was given to him specifically. By this he meant that the Torah did not yet filter down from him to the level of the people. Immediately after G-d spoke the Ten Commandments, Moses went up onto the mountain for forty days and forty nights. Moses did not have the time to bring the message down to their level. And while they also heard the commandment not to worship idols, they had not yet fully absorbed the true meaning of that Mitzvah and they could not yet be held responsible for violating it.
The process of bringing the Torah to the level of each and every Jew is one that started at Sinai, but has not ended yet. The “graduation,” i.e., the point at which we will have fully internalized all of the Torah, will occur with the coming of Moshiach. While there will never be another revelation at Sinai, the full import of Sinai will become evident to every Jew in the future Messianic Age.
To prepare for this time, it is our obligation to serve as the next link in the chain of Torah; to brings its message to yet another generation of Jews, so that the Torah will not remain foreign to anyone.