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Home » CBT

Vayetze: Grappling With Sin

Submitted by on November 22, 2009 – 4:45 amNo Comment | 2,206 views

Showdown

Jacob lived with his uncle Laban for twenty years. During this time he married two of Laban’s daughters, fathered twelve children and built a lucrative cattle trade. Toward the end of this time Jacob sensed his uncle’s hostility and his growing resentment of Jacob’s success.

Fearing his uncle, Jacob gathered his family and secretly fled Laban’s home. Upon discovering his stealthy disappearance Laban, enraged, pursued Jacob across the mountain. Thus the Torah describes their confrontation:
“And Laban overtook Jacob, and Jacob pitched his tent on the mountain, and Laban pitched with his kinsmen on Mount Gilead. And Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done? You stole my heart, and led my daughters like prisoners of war?” (1)

Two Paradigms

The Torah does not tell stories for the sake of story telling; that is for history books. The Torah is instructional; a guide book for ethical comportment in daily life. There were myriads of conversations between Jacob and Laban. That the Torah selected this particular exchange for publication is instructive. What can we learn from this story?

In addition to the actual exchange between two very real people these verses shed light on a constant dialectic within every feeling, thinking human being. This is the dialectic between our holy and selfish dimensions. Within us there are two little voices; one encourages us to serve ourselves by making choices that benefit and delight us. The other motivates us to serve G-d by doing what is right because it is right. These good and bad inclinations, known as Yetzer Tov and Yetzer Hara, are represented by Jacob and Laban. (2)

The Dialogue

The dialogue between Jacob and Laban is one you hear every day within yourself; it is the dialogue between your Yetzer Tov and Yetzer Hara. It begins with “And Laban overtook Jacob.” The Yetzer Hara pursues us day and night; challenging us at every turn with ever more difficult trials, until he wears us down. “And Laban overtook Jacob.” In every lifetime there are occasions when the Yetzer Hara overcomes the the Yetzer Tov. (3)

When this happens, Jacob’s response is to “pitch his tent on the mountain.” It is difficult to drive piles into a mountain, but not impossible. Our sages taught that though the Yetzer Hara appears mighty, it is, in truth, a weakling. It floods us with temptations that seem as insurmountable as a mountain, but when we resist and prevail, we gain a truer perspective. We see the Yetzer Hara for what it truly is; small and insignificant. (4) This is Jacob, the Yetzer Tov’s, inner message in pitching a tent on the mountain.  The pressure from the Yetzer Hara seems unyielding like a mountain, but we can overcome her. We can drive piles into her mountain and pitch our own tent; we can stand our ground and overcome her wiles.

Laban, however, is not easily defeated. Laban responds by pitching his tent “with his kinsmen on Mount Gilead.” Mount Gilead is where Laban and Jacob famously dined. (5) By pitching his tent on Gilead Laban proclaimed that though Jacob is superior to Laban, the Yetzer Hara still holds a trump card. She knows our weak spot and hits us where we are most vulnerable. We are physical creatures partial to luxury, power, comfort and prosperity. These temptations seem innocent, but let us not be fooled; they are the Yetzer Hara’s kinsmen.

We are inherently able to overcome these temptations, we can pitch our tent on this mountain, but despite our inherent ability and despite our noblest intentions, these cravings lure us in by invoking a self centered mindset that erodes our resolve, dilutes our focus and causes us to forget, if for a moment, about G-d.

Her Secret Wish

Laban, however, did not want to defeat Jacob because the Yetzer Hara is ultimately an agent of G-d. It is her mission to lure us in, but as an agent of G-d it wants us to overcome her wiles and choose to serve G-d. She plays the role of opposition, but her sympathies are with the soul. For this reason Laban proceeded to inform Jacob of a secret tool by which we can overcome even the craftiest Yetzer Hara.

This secret tool is the soul’s inherent humility. Only in humility can we designate our needs subservient to those of G-d. The body cries out for physical luxury and the soul acknowledges this need. Why won’t you provide it for me, demands the body. Why is so important that you get what you need, counters the soul. Because I am important to myself and if I don’t get what I want I will be unhappy, replies the body. No, answers the soul with finality, you are not important. Only G-d is important.

This is what Laban means when he says, “What have you done? You stole my heart.” In the Torah, the word what connotes humility, as Moses famously said, “What are we?” Says Laban to Jacob, what have you done? Another way of putting it is, “Have you done what?” Have you embraced the question, what are we? Because if you do, you will successfully, “steal my heart.” Our sages taught that a Jew is of two hearts; the heart of the Yetzer Hara and the heart of the Yetzer Tov. (6) Laban told Jacob that embracing the soul’s inherent humility empowers us to neutralize the Yetzer Hara and thus steal its heart.

If you steal my heart, Laban continued, “You will lead my daughters [who are] like prisoners of war.” So long as we are subject to the dominion of the Yetzer Hara we are the euphemistic daughters of Laban; his prisoners of war. Laban tells Jacob, if you succeed in harnessing the power of your inherent humility, if you successfully steal the Yetzer Hara’s heart, you will be able to lead yourself, who until now have been my daughter, my prisoner of war, back to G-d. You will teach her the ways of Torah, guide her along the path of ethical living and ultimately bring about my defeat.

These are the words of Laban. So speaks our Yetzer Hara. It mounts a terrific battle, but it harbors a secret desire to lose. In the end, our nemesis is rooting for us. If we resist her, she will rejoice. If we defeat her she will be the first to congratulate us. So let us drive in the piles and pitch our tent. Let us make our stand and declare that our allegiance it only to G-d. Our enemy might seem unyielding like a mountain, but once aroused nothing can stand up to the resilience of the Jewish soul. (7)

Footnotes

  1. Genesis 31: 25-26.
  2. There
    are many links between the name Jacob and the Yetzer Tov and the name
    Laban and the Yetzer Hara. The following is merely one of them. The
    root of Jacob’s name is the Hebrew word Akev, which means, heel. The
    Yetzer Tov encourages us to make choices that might cost us in this
    world, but will pay off at the end of life’s journey; in the world to
    come. The benefits of a Mitzvah are only noticeable when you get to the
    end of the road; to the very last step or the heel. Laban on the other
    hand means white. The choices that the Yetzer Hara advocates cause the
    soul untold grief. When we succumb to the Yetzer Hara, the soul
    blanches. It weakens and pales; its inner face turns white.
  3. King
    Solomon (Ecclesiastics 20: 70) wrote, “There is no man righteous on
    earth who has done [purely] good and has [never] sinned. “
  4. Babylonian Talmud, Sukkot: 52a.
  5. Genesis 31: 54
  6. Mishnah, Brachot, 9:5.
  7. This essay is based on commentary from Ohr P’nei Moshe ibid.