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Parashat VaYishlach 5773 — 11/28/2012

Parashat VaYishlach 5773 — 11/28/2012

I am too lowly for all the kindnesses and for all the truth (32:11)

Rather, I am too lowly means that Jacob felt he was too lowly to be worthy of all the kindnesses that Gd had done for him. (Ramban ad loc).

But you said “I will surely do good for you!”  (32:13)

Rather, everything was due to Jacob’s fear of sin, for it is the way of the righteous to constantly fear that their sins have made them unworthy.  And he was afraid that perhaps even since having left Haran he had sinned, by forging a covenant with Laban, an idol-worshiper, or by some other act, for “who can know his own errors?” (Ps 19:13).  (Ramban ad loc)

Israel was worthy of having a miracle performed for it when they entered the Land of Israel in the time of Ezra, the same as in the time of Yehoshua bin Nun, but transgression caused [the miracle] not to take place. (Berachot 4a)

There are a number of principles that our Sages delineate that appear to govern the way Gd interacts with the world and the people in it.  One of these is midah k’neged midah (measure for measure – karma if you will).  Another is that the greater the person, the more exacting Gd is with him or her.  I’d like to see if we can see the logic behind these principles.

Our Sages tell us that human beings have free will; it is our common experience that we can make moral choices, and we also understand that the choices we make have consequences for ourselves and our surroundings.  Correct moral choices are those that further Gd’s plan for creation and vice versa.  In general, Gd’s plan for creation is that order and harmony among the various constituents of creation should increase, although it is certainly possible that there may be periods and localities where some retrenchment is taking place, in much the same way that a builder must tear down an old, dilapidated structure in order to build something new and beautiful in its place.  I am writing this in the week before Tisha B’Av, which commemorates two of the most extreme examples of such apparently backwards movement – the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem.  Since the Divine Service in the Temples had become all form and no substance, their continued existence no longer testified to Gd’s existence and activity in the universe, and they were, apparently, doing more harm than good.

Now we know in classical (Newtonian) physics that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”  If our actions create disorder in the universe, then the universe will react to attempt to restore the previous state of order.  This can take place on the physical level, or the spiritual level, or both.  This reaction is what we perceive as reward or punishment for our actions.  Torah is replete with examples.  In our Parashah Ya’akov comes back to his father’s household after 22 years (20 in Lavan’s house and 2 years on the return journey).  During these 22 years he was unable to perform the mitzvah of honoring his parents.  Beginning with next week’s Parashah, his beloved son Yosef will be forcibly separated from him – for 22 years.

This leads us to the second principle.  True, Ya’akov was away from his parents for 22 years.  But they were the ones who told him to go to Haran and find a wife there.  At the very least the 14 years that he worked for Leah and Rachel shouldn’t be counted!  Apparently the answer lies in the two years that Ya’akov spent after leaving Haran before he arrived at his father’s household (in Chevron).  This is not a two-year journey.  Even though he had large flocks and herds, and young children, had he gone straight to his father’s house the journey might have taken a couple of weeks – after all, he got from Haran to Gilead in 7 days when he was fleeing Lavan!  Apparently getting to his father was not Ya’akov’s first priority; that being the case, his intentions are reflected back on the other 20 years as well, and all get wrapped up together in one transgression!

Now this appears to be hairsplitting on Gd’s part, doesn’t it?  Neither you nor I would last very long were we held to such a standard!  But that is exactly the point – you and I are not on Ya’akov Avinu’s spiritual level.  What we do with our lives is significant; we are advised to consider ourselves as if our sins and our merits were exactly balanced, so that our next action will make the difference between a life of righteousness or otherwise.  Furthermore, we should view all of creation as if all the positive and negative forces were in an exact, yet precarious balance, so that our next action will send creation spinning off in one direction or the other.  On the other hand, we also experience that the apparent results of our actions are limited in time and space.  The actions of Ya’akov, on the other hand, are much more fraught with significance, as they were setting the foundation for the entire history of the people/nation of Israel.  Any deviation on his part would have much more severe consequences; therefore the pushback had to be harder so that the deviation could be corrected.  A simple example: If we’re shooting an arrow at a target 10 meters away, we can be off the proper line by a degree or two and still hit the target.  If the target is 100 meters away, a degree or two will mean that we miss the target by many meters; we have much less margin for error the greater the distance over which we wish to have an effect.

Our Sages tell us that Gd tried to create the universe using only His midat haDin, Attribute of Strict Justice, but He saw that He couldn’t have creatures with free will if Strict Justice were not tempered with the midat haRachamim, Attribute of Mercy, for those times when we fail to utilize our free will properly.  Nevertheless, it appears that in some way it would be preferable if nobody ever misused their free will, and we could all be governed according to the midat haDin.  In the time when Mashiach comes, that will in fact be the situation.  As we all know, in the current regime, almost nobody could survive such rigor.  I think Torah is describing to us that there is a level of life that can be lived on the level of the midat haDin.  At this level one’s awareness is so fully expanded that it becomes identified with the infinite basis of all creation, and consequently although one would have the ability to sin, just as one would have the ability to stick one’s hand in a fire or to walk off a cliff, nobody would actually make any of these choices.  And since the awareness is fully expanded, it can, in a spontaneous way, as if calculate all the ramifications of any action, and take only those actions that will further the evolution of Creation to the perfection Gd envisioned for it.

Ya’akov Avinu was able to reach this level.  We should be asking ourselves, when will my behavior reach the level of my forebears?!