Skip to content

Parashat Vayetze 5774 — 11/06/2013

Parashat Vayetze 5774 — 11/06/2013

[Lavan] said, “What shall I give you?” Yaakov replied, “Don’t give me a thing.” (Bereishis 30:31)

Trusting in Hashem that He would not abandon him, Yaakov Avinu did not want to take a salary from Lavan. He preferred to enter into a business arrangement and leave the rest to Hashem, for Hashem Himself could certainly bring him success. What is more, as our Sages teach, “Blessing is to be found only in things that are hidden from the eye.”

   “Don’t give me a cent,” said Yaakov Avinu. I do not want you to pay me for my work because I am not satisfied with accepting fixed wages from another human being. I want my livelihood to be given to me only from the hand of the One who feeds and sustains all.  (Chafetz Chaim)

A friend of mine found a quote from Gandhi on Facebook, where Gandhi opined that it was almost sacrilegious to ask Gd for our sustenance, for Gd will always sustain us in his great love for us.  Nonetheless, in our daily prayers we include a request that Gd give us material sustenance, and many commentators on Jewish prayer note that it is in the asking for sustenance in prayer, and the receiving of sustenance in response, that helps us bond with Gd.  In the passage quoted above, it appears that the Chafetz Chaim is leaning more towards Gandhi’s approach.  Is there some common ground?

In Pirke Avot (3:6) we read:

R. Nechunya ben haKanah says: Those who accept on themselves the yoke of Torah, they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of earning a living, but those who throw off the yoke of Torah, they put on him the yoke of government and the yoke of earning a living.

 In the Talmud there is a discussion about the practicality of this advice.  R. Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, avers that R. Nechunya ben haKanah is perfectly reasonable.  Someone who spends all his time engaged in Torah will have his physical needs met miraculously, relieving him of the need to work for a living.  Indeed, there have been stories down through the centuries, including contemporary ones, where this has in fact happened.  On the other side, a few generations later the Babylonian Sage Abaye tersely commented that “many have tried this approach but very few have succeeded.”  I might point out that no less a luminary than the Rambam worked full-time as a physician to the Sultan, as well as maintaining a private practice, while simultaneously being the first to codify Jewish Law, comment on the Mishnah, and write seminal and encyclopedic works of Jewish philosophy.  He was as “engaged in Torah” as one can be, yet he worked for a living.

Now I think to understand this dispute one must be clear on what it means to be “engaging in Torah.”  It is generally accepted that this means study of the texts of Torah – Bible, Talmud, Midrash and commentaries, and this is certainly correct.  But I have always wondered how a purely academic pursuit like this could produce such miraculous results.  If we look more carefully at what people actually imply when they speak of “engaging in Torah,” we see that they mean much more than simply intellectual activity.  In fact, Torah itself is more than simply the texts we have in front of us, it is, according to our tradition, the blueprint of creation: “Gd looked into the Torah and created the world from it.” (Zohar)  The goal of Torah study is actually fundamentally different from the goal of academic disciplines.  In the academic disciplines we strive to gain knowledge of the discipline.  In Torah study we strive to be knowledge of the discipline.  That is, we strive to put our finite mind parallel to the structure of creation as it exists in Gd’s infinite Mind.  In other words, the hours we spend puzzling over a difficult text is a means to an end, and that end is the full expansion of our mind to infinity.

This expansion of the mind is quite an accomplishment!  We can see that if our mind is totally in tune with Gd’s Mind, which, after all, is the intelligence that orders and powers the entire universe, then the course of our lives will also be completely in tune with the course of universal existence and, just as everything else in the universe is supported by the structure of creation, so will our lives be supported.  Thus we read in Pirke Avot (2:4) Make His Will like your will, so that He will make your will like His Will.  In other words, when we have attained the goal of Torah study, where our individual will is completely subsumed in Gd’s Will, then it will naturally be Gd’s Will that your will be upheld, including, of course, your desire for physical sustenance.  Thus, Ya’akov Avinu could propose a seemingly suicidal bargain to the crafty Lavan, confident that his level of consciousness was high enough that he could count on Hashem’s direct support.  Hashem responded with perhaps the earlies known case of genetic engineering.  Perhaps the Chafetz Chaim was at that level, as he seems completely comfortable discussing Ya’akov Avinu’s case as if it applied to himself as well (although he lived in the quite reduced circumstances typical of Eastern European Jews of his era).

For someone of R. Shimon bar Yochai’s stature, this support of Hashem’s was simply an obvious truism.  His level of Torah accomplishment was high enough that he lived miraculously.  When he had to flee Roman persecution, he and his son Elazar were able to live for 12 years in a cave, sustained by a spring and by a carob tree that were miraculously provided for them.  Abaye seems to be expressing the sentiments of the rest of us – Torah study is undoubtedly a fine technique for expanding our minds and drawing close to Gd, but while that process is taking place, we can’t count on having miraculous springs and carob trees, or getting in on the next Apple IPO.  We have to work for a living.  So, apparently, did Rambam.

Apparently our dichotomy is not really a contradiction.  One reality is the reality of the goal – a fully expanded mind and heart receive sustenance directly from our Father in Heaven.  The other reality is the reality of the path – the mind and heart still in the process of expanding do not rely on miracles.  We still must put forth effort to get through each day, as Gd told Adam: By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.  But we can look forward in confidence to the day when Gd will perfect the world and all that dwell therein, when Torah will be manifest and we will each take our place in the universal harmony that will fill creation.

Shemoneh Esrei

Return us, Father, to Your Torah, draw us near to Your service, and turn us to complete repentance (t’shuvah) before You.  Blessed are You, Hashem, Who desires repentance.

I’m actually writing this exactly a week before Rosh haShanah, so certainly thoughts of t’shuvah are on my mind at the moment.  T’shuvah literally means “return,” and is usually thought of in terms of return to a life of righteousness and conformity to Gd’s mitzvot.  This, in itself, is not at all a small thing.  Ya’aros D’vash points out that especially one who has succumbed to sin is partciularly challenged to break free of his negative habits and negative ways of thinking (i.e. patterns of thought that are in opposition to Gd’s plans for the universe).  This is something we have all, undoubtedly experienced in our own lives.  Therefore, we have this prayer in which we ask Gd to strengthen us so that we can achieve success in this area.

Now, as we have discussed earlier, it really doesn’t affect Gd if we sin or if we act righteously.  Gd is infinite and unchanging, and cannot be affected by anything we think, speak or do.  Yet we beseech him for strength as the One Who “desires t’shuvah.”  In what way can we speak of Gd’s desiring t’shuvah?

The big problem with sin is that we do it to assert our independence of Gd.  It’s a kind of immature rebellion that comes from the fact that we are finite creatures, with finite minds.  It’s like a little kid in the “terrible two’s” who says “NO!” very loudly to whatever is asked of him, simply because he is separating from his mother (and father) and needs to assert his own will, no matter how harmful that may be.  This can be alternately cute and exasperating in a two-year-old child.  When we reach adulthood it’s somewhat more serious, because it gets in the way of Gd’s plan for the creation’s being fulfilled.  But the point is that sin is the product of an outward movement as it were, a movement away from Gd, away from infinity, and towards individuality and finitude.

The way we rectify this situation is to “return” to Gd.  This means, on the surface level, to align our thinking with Gd’s thinking as expressed in both Written and Oral Torah and in the thoughts of the great Sages of our tradition.  On a deeper level I believe, it means expanding our minds to the point where we no longer identify primarily with our bodies or even our individual personalities.  Rather, we know our Selves to be infinite, unchanging, detached from all the small concerns of the finite world.  The drives and passions that drag us off Gd’s path for us no longer have any allure, and our every thought and action is now perfectly in tune with Gd’s Will.

The process then is one of creation, differentiation and reintegration into a higher level of structure and sophistication.  The reintegration phase is what we call t’shuvah, and in some way that is probably beyond human understanding, Gd “takes pleasure” in this reintegration.  Once we have reintegrated our finite self back into the infinity from which it sprang, we realize that everything has actually been infinity all along.  To paraphrase Jonathon Livingston Seagull, “Perfect t’shuvah is realizing that you never left.”