Where Yaakov and Lavan Contended
The above discussion communicates the general message of the Torah reading. Nevertheless, as explained above, every event in Yaakov’s journey to Charan, and everything that happened to him there, holds lessons for us in our Divine service.
To focus on one of these points: On the verse, “He slept in that place,” the Midrash comments: “Here, he slept. But in the 14 years in which he hid [studying Torah] in the School of Ever, he did not sleep.” Alternatively, the Midrash states: “For the 20 years during which he stayed in the house of Lavan, he did not sleep.” This is reflected by the verse: “Sleep was snatched from my eyes.” Indeed, he did not even lie down at night.
The second interpretation is problematic. We can understand why Yaakov did not sleep while he was in the School of Ever; he was studying Torah. But why did he have to display such self-sacrifice while working for Lavan?
Based on the above [see previous post], this concept can be understood: the purpose of Yaakov’s journey to Charan and his activities there was to refine the world, to elevate the sparks of holiness that existed in Lavan’s domain. And due to his commitment to this goal, he did not sleep at all. For at all times, he had to fortify himself against the designs of Lavan, who sought to foil Yaakov’s efforts to refine his environment.
Lavan told Yaakov: “The daughters are my daughters; the sons are my sons; the flocks are my flocks.” What was Lavan’s contention against Yaakov? What point was Lavan making? And what argument do Lavan’s spiritual heirs offer Yaakov’s descendants?
Lavan told him: “You are an elderly Jew, and can do as you like. You’re part of the old world, anyway. Go study the Torah day and night, who cares? But the children, that’s another story! They’re part of the modern world. They’re my children. Why do you want to impair them? If you continue in your path, they will not be able to adjust to the world.
“You want to teach them Yiddishkeit. All right, but do it in a modern way, with new methods. Don’t make them into good-for-nothings.”
And similarly, when it came to the sheep, Lavan told him: “I don’t interfere in the way you study or pray, that’s your domain. But business is my realm. ‘The sheep are mine.’
“You’ve got to do things my way. If you want to make a profit, you can’t be so careful about the prohibitions against deceit, against taking away another person’s livelihood, and the like. If you follow the Torah path in business, it’s hard to make a living.”
To counter this approach, it was necessary for Yaakov to lose sleep, indeed, not even to lie down. Such self-sacrifice was necessary not only for studying in the School of Ever, but also for his family and material concerns those matters to which Lavan had a claim. That’s what Yaakov meant when he said: “I worked for you 14 years for your daughters, and six years for your flocks,” i.e., with painstaking labor, I made sure that everything concerning these matters was conducted according to the Torah. In this way, he refined the sparks of holiness that were in Lavan’s domain, and drew down G‑dliness into these material affairs.
The Key to Empowerment
The above also enables us to understand the continuation of the abovementioned passage from the Midrash, which states: “What did he say [during the night while guarding Lavan’s flocks]?” and responds: “The 15 psalms beginning with Shir HaMaalos in the Book of Tehillim,” as reflected in the verse: “Shir HaMaalos: … Let Yisrael say.” Yisrael refers to our Patriarch Yisrael.
Alternatively, the Midrash states that he would recite the entire Book of Tehillim, as it is written: “And You, O Holy One, are enthroned upon the praises of Yisrael.” Yisrael refers to our Patriarch Yisrael. He would relate G‑d’s praises, the Book of Tehillim.
On the surface, it is difficult to understand the Midrash’s question: “What did he say?” What Yaakov did at night is obvious: he guarded Lavan’s sheep. But it is also obvious that Yaakov would not sacrifice himself to this extent merely to guard sheep. Obviously, his intent was to elevate sparks of holiness. The Midrash was asking: What empowered Yaakov to carry out this mission? How was it possible that while being involved with lowly matters such as tending Lavan’s sheep, he was able to maintain his own spiritual level and elevate the entities in Lavan’s domain as well?
And to this question, the Midrash replies that he recited: “Shir HaMaalos: I lift my eyes to the mountains. From where will my help come?” The Hebrew word מאין , translated as “from where” also means “from nothingness.” Both the simple and the extended meaning of the verse are relevant. The simple meaning reflects Yaakov’s realization that with his own power, there was nothing he could do. So he sought help from Above. And the extended meaning shows that he understood the way to draw down this Divine assistance through utter selflessness. He would rely only on G‑d, as the psalm continues: “My help is from G‑d,” and this Divine support empowered him to refine the sparks of G‑dliness that existed in Lavan’s domain.
Through his efforts, he revealed that G‑d is “the Maker of heaven and earth.” Not only is G‑d Master of the heavens, (i.e., spiritual concerns, the Torah which Yaakov studied in the School of Ever), He is also Master of the earth, the worldly concerns which Yaakov encountered in Charan (“the place which aroused G‑d’s anger”), the environment of Lavan.
Following Yaakov’s Example
The particular elements of the narrative concerning Yaakov also serve as directives for our Divine service. In our involvement with worldly matters, we must take twofold precautions:
a) Before “going to Charan,” a person must immerse himself in the study of Torah and in prayer, without any involvement in worldly concerns. Thus while Yaakov stayed in the School of Ever, he was totally absorbed in the study of Torah. And before leaving for Charan, “he encountered the place,” i.e., he made a commitment of prayer.
b) Even when a person is “in Charan,” and “working for Lavan,” he must be involved in Divine service, through reciting Tehillim and the like. This is what elicits Divine assistance in carrying out the mission for which Divine Providence has sent one to Charan.
Moreover, this pattern should also be followed in a Jew’s everyday life. At the beginning of the day, before he becomes involved in his business concerns, a Jew should devote a formidable block of time to prayer and study. The first thing a Jew should do when wakes up is daven. After davenning, everyone should set aside a fixed time to study Torah.
As explained in Likkutei Torah, Parshas Berachah (96a), the Torah studied before prayer is merely an outgrowth of the sublime Chochmah. Through the yichudim established in prayer, the revelation of the sublime Chochmah itself is drawn down into the Torah, and not merely its outgrowths.
From this statement, we can appreciate that the advantage of having prayer precede the study of Torah applies only after the giving of the Torah. From the standpoint of the Torah, it was only at the giving of the Torah that the potential was granted to draw down its essence, and not merely its ethereal dimensions (see Shir HaShirim Rabbah to Shir HaShirim 1:3). And from the standpoint of prayer, it was only at the giving of the Torah that the decree preventing the lower creations from ascending to the spiritual realms was rescinded (see Shmos Rabbah 12:3).
This was not true during the era of the Patriarchs. (See the maamar entitled Imras Havayah Tzarufah, Sefer HaMaamarim Kuntresim, Vol. I, p. 352.) At that time, Divine service could not rise above the spiritual source of the created beings. And thus in that age there was an advantage to the Patriarchs’ Torah study (and in particular, that of Yaakov, who was identified with this mode of Divine service) above their prayer. (This applies even to the study of Torah before prayer.) For their Torah study drew down at least an ethereal dimension of sublime wisdom.
On the surface, however, it would appear that the above is not true. For the Patriarchs instituted the prayer services. Indeed the prayers (even those recited after the giving of the Torah) were instituted by the Patriarchs (Berachos 26b). For this reason the prayers are given the status of a Torah statute (Taanis 28a). This is not the place to elaborate on this issue. Only after becoming satiated with prayer and study should one involve oneself with business.
Moreover, even when a person is involved in his business concerns, they should be only “the labor of your hands,” i.e., they should involve only our hands, the superficial dimensions of our being. One’s mind, by contrast, should be concerned with a chapter of Mishnayos, a passage of Tanya, or a verse in Tehillim.
In addition, while conducting one’s affairs in the business world, it must be obvious that one is different from other people, as it is written: “I [Moshe] and Your people will be distinguished from all the nations on the face of the earth.” A Jew must always stand out from his environment by virtue of his holy conduct, i.e., “Know[ing G‑d] in all your ways.”
Growing up in Yaakov’s Footsteps
This emphasis on holiness must be especially evident in the methods by which children are educated. Education begins in the manner in which the home is run. Needless to say, one’s home should be different from the homes of the gentiles. Nevertheless, this is not sufficient, as one’s home should also be on a higher level of holiness than those of the majority of Torah-observant Jews. For in many of these homes, the prevailing attitudes resemble those of the world at large. Instead, it is the Torah Yiddishkeit and holiness which should permeate every dimension of the home.
This also is reflected in the conduct of the Patriarchs, and in particular in the home environment established by Yaakov. It is written: “And Reuven was walking during the time of the wheat harvest, and found mandrakes in the field.” On this verse, Rashi comments: “This reflects the praise of Yaakov’s children. Although it was harvest time, they did not steal anything and bring home wheat or barley. Instead, they took an ownerless plant that grows wild, about which no one would care.”
Rashi’s words: “This reflects the praise of Yaakov’s children” indicates that the surrounding people did not conduct themselves in this manner. Nevertheless, Yaakov’s children knew that their conduct must be different. Every dimension of their behavior reflected the Torah’s path of holiness. Yaakov had structured his home in a manner that distinguished it from the homes around him.
There is no need to follow the prevailing modes of society. Children must know that their father and mother are different from other parents. Other women dress in clothes that do not necessarily reflect a strong commitment to tzniyus, but their mother dresses according to the highest standards of tzniyus. Other fathers do not refrain from deceiving a client in business, but their father does not attempt to deceive anyone, and instead conducts his business scrupulously.
Even when a child is very young and cannot appreciate every aspect of the Torah’s path of holiness, he will be able to sense that his home is different from all others. Such a child will not model his conduct on that of the children around him. When he sees that other children are conducting themselves improperly, he will conduct himself differently. When he sees that they take from other people’s fields, gathering not only wild, ownerless plants like mandrakes, he understands that he should not act this way; he knows these aren’t the types of friends he should have.
Such is the conduct that produces a tribe of Reuven and a tribe of Yissachar(who was born as a result of the events which ensued due to Reuven’s discovery of the mandrakes). Reuven and Yissachar were tribes which produced the heads of Jewish courts, and the Sages upon whose rulings the halachah is based.
When a Jewish child is trained from the earliest ages onward to sense that he is different from other children, when he grows older, he will not seek to learn from other children his age. Instead, he goes away as Yaakov our Patriarch did and studies G‑d’s Torah. Even his ordinary speech should be comprised solely of words of Torah, as reflected in the interpretation of the command: “And you shall speak of them.”
In this manner, he will mature and, like Yaakov, marry and involve himself in the world at large. He will establish a family, and work to support it. Even at this time of his life, such a person will have fixed periods for Torah study every day. And when he is involved with his material concerns, he will “recite Shir HaMaalos,” showing that he relies totally on G‑d.
As a consequence, all his business affairs will be conducted according to the Torah’s guidelines.
(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Vayeishev, 5711,
and Sichos Simchas Torah, 5715)
We can now understand another aspect of the parshah. The conclusion of the parshah relates that Yaakov and Lavan set up a mound of stones to mark the border between them, and agreed that neither would cross this border to harm each other. They would, however, be allowed to cross for commercial reasons.
What purpose does the mound serve?
To refine material existence, Yaakov had to go to Lavan in Charan to elevate the sparks of G‑dliness enclothed there. Nevertheless, Yaakov must know that there is a boundary separating him from Lavan. He must realize that, with the exception of this mission, he should have nothing to do with Lavan. A Jew may be involved with worldly matters, but must also separate himself from such concerns. This protects him, and enables him to proceed with confidence, knowing that dealing with Lavan will not cause his own downfall. On the contrary, it is through these activities that he will transform the world into a receptacle for G‑dliness, as reflected in the verse: “G‑d has taken away the cattle of your father and has given it to me.”
Reconciling the Spiritual with the Material
The power to carry out the Divine service associated with this boundary to involve oneself in worldly matters while remaining separated from worldly concerns and in this manner, to make the world a receptacle for G‑dliness comes from the study of Pnimiyus HaTorah, the Torah’s inner dimensions. For it is the study of Pnimiyus HaTorah which leads to the understanding that “there is nothing else apart from Him” - the world’s entire existence is G‑dliness.
This also explains why our efforts to “spread the wellsprings of Chassidus outward” publicizing and disseminating the inner dimensions of the Torah will bring about Mashiach’ s coming. Mashiach will not nullify the existence of the material world. Instead, he will show that it is a receptacle for G‑dliness. At that time, even physical flesh will openly appreciate G‑dliness, as it is written: “The glory of G‑d will be revealed, and together, all flesh will see that the mouth of G‑d has spoken.”
(Adapted from Sichos Lag BaOmer, 5710) Rabbi Eliyahu Touger