SALT | Vayetze 5784 - 2023
Long before the Puritans, Yaakov Avinu set the standard of what we might term the "Jacobian work ethic." After Lavan - his father-in-law and employer - chases after him and accuses him of theft, Yaakov vehemently rejects the accusation and upholds his loyalty:
"These twenty years I have spent in your service, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried, nor did I feast on the rams from your flock. That which was torn by beasts I never brought to you; I myself made good the loss… Scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night; and sleep fled from my eyes" (31:38-40).
Yaakov's testimony of his devotion to Lavan's flocks contains all the elements of a proper work ethic. First, he speaks of competence: "your ewes and she-goats never miscarried." Yaakov accepted the responsibilities of shepherd only after having acquired sufficient know-how to properly tend to the sheep. Next comes honesty: "nor did I feast on the rams of your flock." Alone in the field with his employer's sheep, Yaakov had plenty of opportunities to catch a "quick snack" at Lavan's expense. Yet, he faithfully held out and never took Lavan's sheep for himself. Yaakov also worked with a keen sense of accountability: "That which was torn by beasts I never brought to you; I myself made good the loss." Rather than presenting Lavan with excuses, Yaakov maturely accepted responsibility for any mishaps that may have occurred to the flock under his charge. The final ingredient of Yaakov's work ethic is elbow grease: "Scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night, and sleep fled from my eyes." When the going got rough, Yaakov kept going. His devotion to his work overcame the hostile natural forces and fatigue.
Besides teaching us about honesty and integrity in the workplace, Yaakov's example may shed some light on our ultimate responsibility in life, that of "avodat Hashem." Our religious observance must feature these basic elements: competence, honesty, accountability, and hard work. The need for competence requires us to educate ourselves regarding our many responsibilities as observant Jews. We cannot possibly claim loyalty to God's laws so long as we remain ignorant of the many detailed halakhot that arise on a regular basis. Secondly, Yaakov teaches us to fulfill our duties honestly. Granted, here the parallel falters a bit, as one can never fool the Almighty. But all the more so, we have what to learn from Yaakov Avinu in this regard: there is no such thing as cheating or cutting corners when it comes to Torah observance. Accountability in this context essentially translates into teshuva: when we err, we must hold ourselves accountable and humbly confess our wrongdoing. We are then to do whatever necessary to reverse the effects of our sins. Finally, the elbow grease: we cannot be "fair weather Jews." Just as Yaakov remained with his flock during the seething heat and frigid winds, often losing nights of sleep, so must we never abandon our duties when adverse situations arise.
This is perhaps how we become as loyal servants of God as Yaakov was of Lavan.
The Gemara in Berakhot 26b remarks that upon his departure from Be'er Sheva, Yaakov Avinu instituted the arvit (evening) prayer. Later the Gemara records a controversy between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua as to whether the evening service is mandatory or optional. It would seem that one who views this prayer as optional must reject its origins in Yaakov's prayer. Why would arvit deserve a lower level of obligation than shacharit and mincha, which, according to this position, were instituted by Avraham and Yitzchak, respectively? Rabbi Yehoshua presumably adopts the second opinion in the aforementioned Gemara, that "arvit" evolved later, in commemoration of the burning of sacrificial animal limbs on the altar in the Bet Hamikdash, which would continue through the night.
Although the halakha follows Rabbi Yehoshua, that, strictly speaking, the recitation of arvit does not constitute an outright obligation, the Jewish people have nevertheless accepted this service upon themselves as an obligation (Rambam, Hilkhot Tefila 1:6). Therefore, should one forget to recite arvit one night he must say two shemoneh esrei's the following morning to compensate. Similarly, if one forgets "ya'aleh ve-yavo" or "ve-tein tal…" and the like during shemoneh esrei of arvit, he must repeat shemoneh esrei just as he would with regard to shacharit and mincha.
Although we do not conduct a repetition of shemoneh esrei ("chazarat ha-shatz") at arvit, Chazal instituted a brief repetition of shemoneh esrei on Friday night. The "Magen Avot" prayer - which actually begins with the previous passage, "Barukh Ata Hashem…" - consists of brief summaries of each of the seven berakhot of the Friday night shemoneh esrei. Although this paragraph was intended solely for the chazan, the custom has evolved for the entire congregation to recite (or chant) "Magen Avot." However, the Mishna Berura (268:22) emphasizes that the chazan himself must repeat the paragraph aloud after the congregation, whereas it was initially instituted for him alone. It is also worth noting the Shulchan Arukh's ruling (268:13) that one who missed arvit or recited the weekday shemoneh esrei on Friday night may fulfill his obligation by carefully listening to the chazan's brief "repetition," from "Barukh Ata Hashem" until "mekadesh ha-Shabbat." In order for this to work, however, the chazan must have in mind to fulfill the obligation on behalf of the listener. Therefore, it would seem that one leading the service on Leil Shabbat should remember to bear this in mind as he recites "Magen Avot."
On his way to Charan, Yaakov dreams his famous dream of the angels ascending and descending a ladder that stretched up to the heavens. Several different explanations exists as to what exactly these angels were doing and why they walked continuously up and down the ladder. The Gemara in Chulin (91b) comments that these angels went to heaven "to look upon his [Yaakov's] image up above," after which they descended to earth "to look upon his image down below." Meaning, the angels were busy comparing Yaakov's "image" in the heavens and his image down on earth. What does all this mean?
The following, insightful explanation is cited in the name of Rav Soloveitchik zt"l. Yaakov's "heavenly image" refers to his potential, the persona destined for him to become and the sum total of his innate talents and gifts. His "earthly image" means the manifestation of Yaakov down on earth, how the ideal image adjusted itself to the realities of our world. The angels scurried back and forth between the two, observing that each was in fact a carbon copy of the other. Our third patriarch had actualized his God-given potential and emerged into the spectacular pillar of righteousness that sowed the seeds for the emergence of Am Yisrael.
The Rav is cited as applying this idea to the well-known Midrash of Yosef's encounter with Potifar's wife. The Midrash relates that just as Yosef nearly acquiesced to her advances, he beheld his father's image and withdrew. What about Yaakov's image afforded Yosef the strength to resist temptation? Yosef took note of the perfect symmetry between Yaakov "heavenly" and "earthly" images. He feared the disparity that would result between the "theoretical" Yosef in heaven, the "Yosef Ha-tzadik" that has become synonymous with righteousness, and the Yosef prepared to sleep with his employer's wife. Yaakov's image taught him - and teaches us - that through enough discipline and effort, one can reach his full potential and fulfill the goal for which he was created.
Commenting on the first verse of Parashat Vayetze, Rashi speaks of the profound impact felt by a city upon a tzadik's departure therefrom. Yaakov's flight from Be'er Sheva left its mark on the city, for, as Rashi writes, a righteous man is the city's pride and glory. As he leaves, the city senses a profound sense of loss.
The obvious question arises, this is not the first time in Chumash that a tzadik leaves town! The Torah speaks on several occasions of the travels of Avraham and Yitzchak. Why did Rashi never mention anything about the impact felt on the cities from where they left?
One answer given suggests that Rashi notes the impact of Yaakov's departure because his leaving town might have seemed less consequential than the travels of Avraham and Yitzchak. The Torah informs us of Avraham and Yitzchak's involvement with the community and their role in public life. Yaakov, by contrast, is described as a "dweller of tents," or, in contemporary lingo, "a yeshiva bachur." He hadn't yet emerged on the public scene or involved himself in communal affairs. One may have therefore questioned the effects of his departure from a city. Rashi thus feels compelled to point out that Yaakov, was, in fact, the crown jewel of Be'er Sheva. The community suffered a blow when he packed his bags and left.
Particularly in an age of mass media, we often use public notoriety as a barometer of a given individual's contribution to society. A no-name rarely receives credit for accomplishments or acknowledgment for his day-to-day goodness. Yaakov Avinu didn't lead outreach or "chesed" organizations, nor did he speak at public gathering or forums. At least until fleeing from his brother, he led a simple life, working to build for himself the highest standards of Torah knowledge and piety. Yet, his presence impacted upon the local population, and, as Rashi tells us, that impact was sorely missed as Yaakov made his way out of the city.
Upon his arrival in Charan, Yaakov encounters the shepherds of three flocks sitting idle near a well. Yaakov takes note of their inactivity and scolds, "It is still broad daylight, too early to round up the animals; water the flock and take them to pasture" (29:7). They explained to Yaakov that their failure to water the flock is due not to laziness or fatigue on their part, but rather to the large stone sitting at the well's opening. No one can move the rock until all the shepherds gather together and push it together.
We ought to be pleasantly surprised by the shepherds' polite response. A strange foreigner comes out of nowhere and administers unsolicited criticism, which resulted from his own ignorance of the local protocol. What more, this criticism essentially constitutes a rather harsh allegation, accusing the shepherds of negligence in their responsibilities towards their sheep! Why are they not infuriated at this nosy stranger who incorrectly and unfairly charged them with delinquency towards their flocks?
Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky finds the answer in a single word: "achai" ("my brethren"). Yaakov first warmly greets the shepherds and speaks softly and pleasantly. He engages them in friendly conversation, inquiring as to the well-being of his Uncle Lavan. In so doing, Yaakov teaches us an invaluable lesson in how to criticize: it must be done politely and pleasantly, rather than in anger and disgust. Hostile and confrontational rebuke only reinforces the other's resistance to accept criticism. Soft-spoken, kindhearted words, however, have a chance of meeting a receptive audience. Yaakov's pleasant demeanor transmitted his sincere concern for the flock and, more importantly, high regard for the shepherds in spite of his critique of their current idleness. Therefore, rather then responding defensively, the shepherds politely explained to the stranger the situation, and a potentially fiery exchange was replaced by a calm, friendly dialogue.
In his comments towards the beginning of the parasha, Rashi cites the Midrash that presents a far more complicated version of Yaakov's trip to Charan than that which appears in the verses. Chazal claim that upon reaching Charan, Yaakov regretted having passed Mount Moriah without taking advantage of the site's sanctity to offer a prayer. As soon as he decided to turn around and head back, the mountain miraculously came to greet Yaakov, as it were, and he prayed at the holy site.
Among the many questions this passage raises is a rather simple one posed by the Kotzker Rebbe: why did Yaakov, in fact, neglect to pray at the mountain initially? Did he just forget? Was it only after he reached Charan that he realized the importance of praying at the holy site of the Temple?
The Kotzker Rebbe answers that Yaakov at first felt himself unworthy of frequenting the sacred site where his father and grandfather had performed the "akeida." Yaakov saw himself on a qualitatively lower spiritual plane than Avraham and Yitzchak, and hence he had no right to step foot on the sacred mountain. Only with the passage of time did he realize that he is the only one capable of perpetuating the spiritual qualities of his esteemed predecessors; small as he may be (in his eyes), he still had the right - and the duty - to serve the Almighty on Mount Moriah.
Perhaps two important lessons emerge from this analysis. First and foremost, Yaakov teaches us something about genuine humility. How rarely do we consider ourselves "unworthy" of anything! Quite to the contrary, we so often argue that we deserve this, that or the other thing. One example actually flows quite naturally from this incident involving Yaakov: people often feel insulted after not having received a given honor in the Bet Kenesset, be it an "aliya" or the opportunity to lead the services. According to the Kotzker Rebbe, Yaakov exhibits the exact opposite attitude: he felt himself unworthy of a given religious ritual. He understood that certain forms of service are reserved for the spiritual elite, a status he could not honestly claim for himself.
At the same time, it is noteworthy that in the end Yaakov realizes his mistake. While maintaining his self-effacing humility, he nevertheless accepts the responsibility of heir to the golden chain of Avraham. He recognizes that however undeserving he felt himself to be, no one else but he could continue the tradition of Avraham and Yitzchak, symbolized by worship on Mount Moriah. As soon as he came upon this realization, God came to his assistance and facilitated his worship at the sacred site.
Modesty can often work as an excuse for shortsightedness and underachievement. One can easily shake himself free of a given burden of responsibility on the grounds that he is unqualified. Yaakov disproves the myth of the contradiction between humility and bold ambition. One must know exactly where he stands and act accordingly. At times this may dictate recoiling and excusing oneself from a given position. Nevertheless, one must also acknowledge his skills and capitalize on them to the best of his ability.
At the very end of Parashat Vayetze, Yaakov takes leave of Lavan and encounters "angels of God." Ibn Ezra explains that these angels came to assist him, presumably in protecting himself from his vengeful brother. Ibn Ezra also notes that only Yaakov beheld these angels; no one else from his camp saw them.
We may speculate as to the significance of this incident. These angels do not interact with Yaakov, and they seem to contribute nothing to his effort (with the possible exception that, according to the first Rashi in Parashat Vayishlach, Yaakov sent real angels to his brother, a likely reference to the angels he encounters here). Perhaps this is exactly what the Torah teaches us: only Yaakov possessed the insight to see the heavenly protection that accompanied him throughout his ordeals. Whereas everyone else in his camp saw only the events themselves, Yaakov, as he now returned to Canaan, recognized the supernatural forces that had come to his aid.
This encounter is also significant in that it brings Yaakov's excursion to Charan full circle. His trip began with a vision of angels on the ladder, and now closes on a similar note, with the appearance of angels. (Note also the parallel expression, "vayifga"/"vayifg'u," in both contexts.) This may come to emphasize Yaakov's maintenance of his prophetic quality despite the years of exile in the spiritually hostile environs of Lavan, tending to sheep and trying to survive his father-in-law's abuse and manipulation. This steadfast consistency displayed by Yaakov may parallel - in the opposite direction - that of Lavan. The previous verse reads that after the truce between Yaakov and Lavan, "Lavan returned to his place." This may be understood not only in geographic terms, that Lavan returned home to Charan, but in an ethical sense, as well: Lavan remained the same corrupt trickster as he had always been. Yaakov, by contrast, left Lavan's home with the same piety with which he had arrived. Just as he merited an angelic entourage twenty years earlier upon his departure from Canaan, so does he now meet an assembly of angels upon his departure from Lavan.
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