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Parashat VaYetze 5777 — 12/10/2016

Parashat VaYetze 5777 — 12/10/2016

Bereishit 28:10-32:3

Ya’akov departed from Be’er Sheva and went to Charan (28:10)

Why does [Torah] mention [Ya’akov’s] departure? [RAR: We already know he was in Be’er Sheva.] But it is to tell you that the departure of a tzaddik from [his] place makes an impression, for while the tzaddik is in the city he is its splendor and its radiance and its beauty… (Rashi ad loc.)

The Torah wishes to highlight the stark contrast in Ya’akov’s dealings from the moment he left a place of kedusha as he journeyed towards a place of tumah. The names Be’er Sheva and Charan allude to this distinction – Charan is from charon af – burning anger and difficult judgment, while Be’er Sheva is from the word sava [RAR: reading the shin in Be’er Sheva as a sin in Sava] meaning being satiated – receiving abundance in sova s’machot – fullness of joy. Ya’akov went from a place of kedusha with an abundance of Divine influence to a place of strict judgment. The judgment not only meant less abundance from here on, but even removal of the Divine influence he had already received, as our Sages of blessed memory teach us that Eliphaz [RAR: Esav’s eldest son, father of Amalek] the son of Esav attacked Ya’akov and took away all his possessions, leaving him destitute. (R. David Valli)

Rashi apparently focuses on Ya’akov and the effect that he has on the place he is in. This is substantial, as even Lavan admits, after Ya’akov has worked for him for 14 years, that his [Lavan’s] success is all because of Ya’akov. So we have a situation of kedusha flowing from a place of higher kedusha (Be’er Sheva) to a place of lower kedusha (Charan). In a sense this is natural – it follows the laws of thermodynamics, specifically, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that disorder and randomness increase with time – differences get homogenized in a closed system. So on the surface it appears that Ya’akov’s “going out” makes Be’er Sheva a less holy place and it makes Charan a more holy place, leveling out the differences. As we will see, this is only a partial view of what’s happening.

Ramchal takes a somewhat different approach. He focuses less on Ya’akov’s influence on the place(s) where he resided, and more on those places’ influence on him. That is, Ya’akov was able to behave in one manner in Be’er Sheva but had to take a different tack when dealing with the malevolent Lavan. There are a number of Rabbinic teachings that support this theme. Before departing for Charan, Ya’akov “hid in plain sight” from his brother Esav by studying at the “Academy of Shem and Ever.” (Shem is Noah’s son, and Ever is Shem’s great-grandson [Bereishit 10:21-23].) (Ya’akov knew that Esav would never set foot in a yeshiva, so he felt perfectly safe there!) The specialty of this particular yeshiva was “how to live in exile [from the Land of Israel].” In other words, one can expect that the influence of the kedusha of the place, or the lack of it, will affect people’s behavior, and that that behavior will then rebound and affect the kedusha of the place. We saw that happen with Sodom – a vicious cycle of bad behavior creating a bad atmosphere which created more bad behavior, until a tipping point was reached where the level of impurity had grown to such an extent that it could not be borne any more, and the city was destroyed.

So there is a feedback loop between the kedusha of a place and the kedusha of the individual. This is not surprising – feedback loops are ubiquitous in nature. That is why it is often hard to calculate the result of any action – we often don’t know what feedback loops we may trigger, and whether they are bounded, as in the predator-prey population cycle, or if it will run amok as we described in the case of Sodom.

Now I would like to look at the idea of “going out” from a place of kedusha from another angle. The ultimate source of all kedusha is Gd. Our Kabbalists tell us that in order to create, Gd had to contract Himself to leave space for finite objects to exist, as we have discussed on many occasions. Into that “space” Gd radiates His energy and intelligence. But this space is hollow, devoid of kedusha, because there is nothing to be kodesh! So again, this time on the subtlest cosmic level, we have kedusha moving from a place of kedusha to a place of non-kedusha.

However, in both Kabbalah and our Torah portion, there is a major difference between the movement of kedusha from a higher to a lower concentration, and the movement of thermodynamic energy from a higher to a lower concentration (if it’s hot outside and you open the window, your room will get hotter). In the case of thermodynamics we are dealing with a closed system (the atmosphere + room air, in our example) that is not influenced by anything outside it. Such a system experiences an evening-out of differences, a homogenization, a loss of information, an increase of entropy or disorder.

In Ya’akov’s case, which is a paradigm for the nature of creation, we absolutely have an open system. Ya’akov is open to Gd’s influence, and it is this that allows Gd to promise that he will not be abandoned to his fate in tumah-land. Instead, Gd promises to return him to the Land of Israel, to his father’s house. In other words, the trip to Charan is to be an excursion, with a return, a re-integration into kedusha. It is more of a cycle than a straight line, but not simply a circle where one just comes back to his starting point. Indeed, Ya’akov left the Land of Israel with just his staff in his hand, and he came back a wealthy man. Even the boundaries, the physical, have been integrated into his previously purely spiritual life. And we read in the next portion that Ya’akov “came whole (shaleim) to Shechem.”

This is similar to an open thermodynamic system. A simple example is the air over a hot plate, or over a desert blacktop road in the summer. There is a lot of energy pouring into this open system (from the bottom). The system enters a state where it’s far from equilibrium, and the equations governing its behavior become non-linear – they have feedback loops. In this case the result is fairly simple – convection cells form to exhaust the heat from the system more efficiently. This behavior of the system is more highly structured, displays more intelligence, than an inert parcel of air in thermodynamic equilibrium. On the other hand, had we closed the system off after dumping all that heat in it (by putting the air in an insulating box for example), it would quickly degenerate into a static box of air, with no structure or distinguishing features.

The lives of our Patriarchs are templates for our history and also archetypes of cosmic processes. Just as Ya’akov went into exile, but came back and reintegrated with his source at a higher level, so creation emanates from Gd, but then reintegrates with its source on a higher level. This is called tikkun olam – the rectification of the world, and it is our privilege as human beings to be an essential part of the process.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Vayetze

Audio reading of Parshat Vayetze:

The Torah tropes in the reading, ascending and descending tones, give the joyous feeling of ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder — the Ladder, our Ladder.

This parshah begins with Jacob’s mother sending him to her brother in Haran. On the way, he has a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder, Gd above the ladder, telling him He will bless him, make him a great nation, be with him.

The parshah also describes his meeting Rachel at a well, being deceived by his uncle into marrying Leah first and then Rachel, working for 14 years for his two wives, six more for livestock to take with him when he returns to his family home, and the stone covenant made by Laban and him when Laban catches up with him after he has fled.

I will draw on sources such as,, and Wikipedia plus my memory and intuition to discuss the Kabbalistic view of the dream and of the nature of prayer and also give some questions I have about the parshah which I hope we will explore together as time passes.

The common Kabbalistic view of the ladder is that it represents prayer which enables us to ascend from our material world to increasingly unmanifest worlds, and eventually to intimacy with Gd. This view derives particularly from the Zohar, one of the foundation texts of Kabbalah. The Zohar’s view is that it represents the four worlds (Atzilut, , Beriyah, Yetzira, Asiyah) ranging from the most unmanifest, most heavenly, to the most manifest, most physical.

Prayer is the means through which we ascend to come close to Gd, to join with Gd, Who stands above the worlds, Who is One, within which all multiplicity exists as expressions. These four worlds — and a fifth, Adam Kadmon, more subtle still are mentioned in Isaiah, 43:7, and are considered to derive from the Ein Sof (The Endless), Gd beyond description, within Whom all the worlds emerge.

Asiyah is the physical world, the world of action.

Higher than this, is Yetzirah, the world of formation, and Beriyah, the world of creation.

Still higher is Atzilut, the world of intimacy.

Lurianic Kabbalah precedes Atzilut with Adam Kadmon, (The Primordial Adam), which includes all potential creation in latent form.

How is prayer the means to ascend this ladder and to go beyond the veils with which Ein Sof pretends to hide itself?

One fundamental kabbalistic view of prayer, according to, is given in Genesis when Gd gives Adam the power to name all beasts and fowls and thus to become master of the power of words and master of the world the words describe.

The prayers in our siddurs, the prayers of our services, are primarily praises of Gd, expressions of gratitude through which we increasingly appreciate Gd in subtle and subtler, more and more complete ways and thus ascend the ladder to be One with Gd, “standing above.”

I hope that we will use prayer today and every day, to climb the ladder and return to Oneness.