Our Soul Responsibility
During his journey to Lavan’s house, Ya’akov stopped to rest. Although he was unaware of the inherent holiness of the location he had chosen, he would soon discover that he was sleeping at the site of the future Beit HaMikdash (Rashi, Bereishit, 28:11.)
Whilst asleep, Ya’akov dreams:
“And he dreamed, and behold a ladder standing on the ground, with its top reaching Heaven, and behold the Almighty’s angels were going up and down it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, ‘I am the Lord God of Avraham your father, and the God of Yitzhak. I will give you and your descendants the land upon which you lie. And your seed will be as the dust of the earth, and you will spread to the West, and to the East, and to the North, and to the South, and through you and all your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And behold I will be with you, and protect you wherever you go, and I will return you to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that which I have said to you.’ And Ya’akov awoke from his sleep, and he said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was unaware.’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘This place is awesome! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of Heaven.” (Bereishit 28:12-17)
Ya’akov was on his way out of Eretz Yisrael, his family homeland. He was about to experience the very first Jewish exile. He clearly had his concerns. Is it the end? Will I return? How will I cope? So many questions; so many worries. The sun sets, and Ya’akov rests. ‘By chance,’ he chooses to rest at the site of the Akeidah, and whilst asleep, he receives assurances regarding all of his fears. God Himself comes to Ya’akov in a dream and promises him that all will be well; however long the exile lasts, Ya’akov will ultimately return home, to inherit the Land of Israel.
There can be no greater collateral in this world than a direct guarantee from the Almighty. We are thus perplexed to hear Ya’akov’s immediate response to the prophecy he had just received:
“And Ya’akov vowed a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and protect me during my journey, and if he will give me bread to eat, and clothing to wear, so that I return to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.” (Ibid. 20-21)
How are we to understand this response? Did Ya’akov not believe in God? Hashem had just directly told him that He would protect him, yet Ya’akov seems skeptical! And how are we to understand the very last words of Ya’akov’s statement: “then the Lord shall be my God”? Was his loyalty to the Almighty dependent on certain conditions being fulfilled? What would Ya’akov do if for some reason he were harmed during his exile; would the Lord then cease to be his God?
There have been many answers to these questions:
Rashi is of the opinion that Ya’akov’s response was one of humility rather than skepticism. Ya’akov had every confidence that the Almighty could fulfill any promise He made, but he was doubtful of his own worth. He feared that perhaps he would sin, or fall in spirituality, and consequently nullify any prior commitment made to him by Hashem. Thus, in verses 20 and 21, Ya’akov is saying that if all the Almighty promises him transpires, then there can be no surer sign that the Lord is his God; i.e., he has proven himself a worthy servant of Hashem.
Implicit within Rashi’s comment is the fundamental principle that no man has an ‘open check’ in this world. Even a concrete promise made to Ya’akov is dependent on his subsequent behavior. It would be very dangerous for any individual Jew to presume that he has an unconditional destiny irrespective of any actions he may or may not do. On the contrary, we have a divine covenant with the Almighty, but our relationship with our King is ultimately defined by our actions.
The Kli Yakar extends this very same theme, though he approaches it from a slightly different angle:
The promises made to Ya’akov by the Almighty were of a physical nature. Hashem had guaranteed physical safety and a physical return to the Land of Israel, but He would not pledge ‘safety’ to Ya’akov in the spiritual arena, for that would in effect remove his free choice. Ya’akov was therefore worried about his part of the bargain. He was skeptical about his own ability to survive spiritually, for that survival depended solely on him.
The Kli Yakar supports his theme with a number of textual qualifications. How often do we offload the religious issues in our life onto someone else? Our spiritual failures are never our fault. They are always due to mitigating circumstances. Both Rashi and the Kli Yakar don’t see it that way at all; quite the contrary. Our physical successes and failures have much less to do with us than our spiritual successes and failures.
Moshe Rabbeinu warns us:
“Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God…Lest when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses, and dwelt in them; and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiplies, and you have an abundance of everything; then your heart will feel pride, and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, from the house of bondage; who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, in which were venomous serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought forth water for you out of the rock of flint; who fed you in the wilderness with manna …. And you say in your heart, My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth. But you shall remember the Lord your God: for it is He who gives you power to get wealth…” (Devarim 8: 11-18)
We must remember that while our spiritual wellbeing is our responsibility, the bulk of our physical wellbeing is not due to our strength and power, but to the will of God.
We thus face an almost tragic paradox. Hashem guarantees our physical stability (our sustenance, our health, our livelihood,) whilst we are required to put the bulk of our energies into our spiritual being. However, we seem to spend so much of our energy in the physical realm (a realm over which we have little real control,) that we have little to no strength available to fight the spiritual battles that need to be fought, and when we inevitably fail, we claim mitigating circumstances.
Ya’akov is aware of where his efforts should be. This does not stop him from working extremely hard whilst in Lavan’s house, but it does help him never to lose sight of his real objective. Ya’akov is not worried about his material status, however much he works. He knows that his physical life is in God’s hands. Ya’akov is worried about his spiritual health because that is dependent on his own efforts.
When we arise every morning, we need to clearly define our goals and objectives. Wherever we go, and whatever we do, the purity and development of our souls should be foremost in our mind. We have total responsibility.
We can understand Ya’akov’s journey to be similar to our soul’s journey to this world. On his way out of Eretz Yisrael, Ya’akov is promised physical safety, but he understands his spiritual obligations. His aim is to return untarnished to Eretz Yisrael after 20 years with Lavan – “And Ya’akov came shalem (complete).” (Bereishit 33:18) So too, our soul leaves Heaven on the day that we are born. Hashem informs us that He will take charge of our physical existence but we are to look after our souls. That is our responsibility, so that after 120 healthy years in this world we too will merit shlemut!
On a national level, the lessons of Rashi and Kli Yakar are very much relevant to the situation of Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael today. I recently came across a very interesting dialogue that was said to have taken place between Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog (the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel) and the ‘Griz’ (HaRav Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveitchik) just before the siege on Yerushalayim in 1948.
Rabbi Herzog is said to have pleaded with the Griz not to leave Yerushalayim, stating the famous tradition that the third Beit HaMikdash will not be destroyed, and since the State of Israel is the beginning of redemption, there is no real danger of Yerushalayim being destroyed or conquered. The Griz replied that he had a different tradition from his father, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik – “when bullets are being fired it is time to run away!”
I am aware that there are many who claim that this conversation never took place. Nevertheless, I refer to it because its content is very relevant to our discussion. Our predicament in Eretz Yisrael is fundamentally spiritual and not physical.
The Sfat Emet on Parashat Masei points out why the journeys in the wilderness are enumerated. There are 49 (the 42 initial encampments plus the seven additional encampments when Am Yisrael journeyed backwards in the aftermath of Aharon’s death.) In the same way that there were 49 days between the exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah, representing the 49 levels of spirituality required in order to be worthy of the Torah, there are 49 levels that need to be acquired in order to enter the Land of Israel: the 49 desert stops represent those 49 spiritual steps.
We have to be worthy of Israel. We have to earn Israel in the same way that Ya’akov earned his spirituality. Our hope is that our current reality is indeed the beginning of the final redemption, but it would do us no harm whatsoever to take a leaf from Ya’akov’s book, and ensure that the sacred ancient promise is fulfilled. I am sure that even Rabbi Herzog of blessed memory would agree that if we do not spiritually nurture this wonderful gift of the State of Israel; if we do not prove ourselves spiritually worthy, then we will never fulfill our 2000 year-old dream.
We must not take Eretz Yisrael for granted. We must strive to be worthy of the great honor that has been bestowed upon us. And when we ultimately prove ourselves worthy, then we will surely be His people, and He will just as surely be our God!