The Power of Yaakov Avinu, the Potential of his Children

Rabbi Dr. David Kallus – 5768

After 14 years in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever, Yaakov sets out to Charan to fulfill his parents’ mandate to find a wife. According to Rashi’s view this journey shows that Yaakov had some unusual talents:

As Yaakov travels to Charan after the “z’man” in yeshiva was over, he remembers that he didn’t pay the proper respect to the place where his fathers prayed. Immediately, Yaakov is transported to the makom hamikdash with a “kefitzas haderech” – the road miraculously became shorter for him (Rashi 28:17). The pesukim then teach us that Yaakov went to sleep. Rashi (28:11) points out that the Torah emphasizes that Yaakov slept “in that place,” and explains that it was in fact only in that place that he slept; during the 14 years that he was in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever he did not sleep (not even 2-4-2!). That night, the very stones that surround him jockey for a position under the tzaddik’s head. Hashem turns them into a single stone because of their efforts (Rashi 28:11). Finally, when he comes to the well (a popular spot to meet a potential mate), he single-handedly lifts a heavy boulder to help Rachel draw water (29:10).

Why is the Torah trying to impress us with Yaakov’s physical prowess?  Were we not already impressed enough that he is an “ish tam yoshev ohalim?” It seems that the lesson to be learned from these events is that the natural boundaries of the world that we see around us are not as confining as we think. The very will of a strong spiritual personality can alter even what we believe to be the physical reality. The reason for this is that our mission and goal in the world is to imitate Hashem’s midosimitatio Dei. The more closely we are connected to the will of our Creator, the more similar to the Creator we become. (This is ultimately the nature of reward in the world to come; the cleaving of the soul to its Creator.) Just as Hashem is not bound by the laws of the physical universe, a perfect tzaddik like Yaakov is also not completely bound by these laws.  The work that Yaakov did in the years prior to this story (he was 77 years old at the time he met Rachel) put him on a very holy level.  When he finally went out beyond the walls of his home and yeshiva he was a man whose will had a say in the physical world around him.

This explanation can help us understand a very esoteric Targum Yonasan ben Uziel. The pasuk (28:12) says that “Malachai Elokim olim veyordim bo,” the angels were going up and down the ladder. The Targum says that the malachim that were descending the ladder in Yaakov’s dream were saying, “Come and look at the face of Yaakov, which is also on the throne of Hashem.” Similarly, the midrash says that the malachim who rose up to the heavens were stupefied by the fact that the face on the throne of Hashem appeared to be the same as that of the man they just saw sleeping down below. What is the symbolism of Yaakov’s face appearing on the throne?

The answer could be that Yaakov personified what the ideal oved Hashem should be. He came so close to perfection that the malachim were confused about how a human being could accomplish such a feat. After all, if he is a mere human asleep below, how can he be displayed on the throne of Hashem? The answer is that man has the potential to extend beyond the physical world that he lives in by working hard to perfect his personality. Man lives in both the physical and spiritual worlds; when he focuses his life on the spiritual, the limits of the physical world are less applicable.

The ability for a spiritual person to control nature was manifest even in the time of the tanna’im. The gemara (Chullin 7a) relates that Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair was traveling to fulfill the mitzva of redeeming captives, and he arrived at the Ginai River. He told the river to split so that he could pass, and the river refused, arguing that while R’ Pinchas may or may not be successful in performing the will of his Creator, it (the river) would continue flowing and thereby certainly succeed fulfilling the will of its Creator. Ignoring this argument, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair dug in his heels and threatened that if the river would not give in, he would command that it stop flowing forever. The river succumbed and split.

The messages of these stories are very relevant to us. While we are not likely to bend the laws of physics due to our performance of mitzvos and Torah learning, the importance of our accomplishments is quite significant. A major problem among many Torah students today is the fact that a lot of us do not have the proper measure of self esteem. We underestimate our ability to grow into independent and successful learners.  How often do we hear the chant “I can’t,” especially when it comes to learning difficult material?  Interestingly enough, when many of these same students apply themselves in secular fields they thrive because they work aggressively to get what they want. If we look at what our avos were able to perform, learning to grow and excel in Judaism and in our spiritual endeavors is not too much to strive for. We should recognize that we inherited their genetic and spiritual makeup and strive for the benchmarks that they set for us.

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