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Home » Vayetze

Vayetze: Jacob’s Lifeline

Submitted by on November 23, 2020 – 9:22 pmNo Comment | 1,441 views

Have you ever gone out for drinks with colleagues and felt like a fish out of water? Suppose you are on a business trip with serious-minded professionals, but then over drinks, their professional exterior fades, and the talk turns vulgar. Your collegiality with these people is based on your common profession and expertise, but when the alcohol flows and their true colors emerge, you wonder, why you are there.

Their interests, aspirations, goals, and humor are so markedly different from yours that you wonder what kinship you share with them. Should you just go back to your room and go to sleep? The answer is probably yes, but when you do, you are likely to fall into a funk. You will miss your real friends and family, and you will regret coming on the trip. What can you do to avoid this gloom?

Jacob had a similar problem. He left his home, a place of comfort and security, and traveled to a strange country and a people markedly different from his own. At home, Jacob was wholesome; a straight shooter who said what he meant and meant what he said. At Laban’s home, Jacob was surrounded by devious swindlers and had to become devious to protect himself. He was like a fish out of water, so what did he do? How did he preserve his cheer and positive self-image? The Talmud tells us he did three things.

First, he prayed. He sang the fifteen Psalms (120–134) that begin with the words shir hamaalot, a song of ascents. He prayed not only that he be protected from the others, but also, and more importantly, that he not become like them. That his rubbing shoulders with them exert a positive influence on them rather than become a negative influence on him.

Golda Meir famously said, we can forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we can never forgive them for making us kill their children. When Esau marched against Jacob with a strong army, the Torah tells us that Jacob was frightened and distressed. Our sages explained that he was frightened about being be killed and distressed over the possibility that he might need to kill. Jacob worried about his physical and his spiritual wellbeing. He worried that he about becoming like them—a killer like Esau or a swindler like Laban.

That is the first thing we need to do when we find ourselves in environments that feel alien to us. We pray that we do not become like them. That G-d enables us to exert a positive influence on them rather than them exerting a negative influence on us.

The Special Moment
Why did Jacob choose to chant fifteen prayers, not fewer, and not more? Because fifteen invoked an especially important time for him. Abraham passed away when Jacob was fifteen so for the first fifteen years of Jacob’s life, all three patriarchs were alive. Jacob, his father, and his grandfather all spent time together. They would study Torah for fifteen hours a day, during which time, Jacob would absorb the teachings and core values of his father and grandfather.

When Jacob found himself in this alien environment, he prayed fifteen prayers to bring to life the memories of those fifteen years. Those were his strongest years and best memories. Those years formed the foundation for the rest of his life. When he felt vulnerable and adrift, he returned to his anchor. In his mind’s eye, he returned to the cocoon of spiritual warmth and safety that he enjoyed during that time. And this made him feel safe again. Immune and inured to the wiles of his alien environment.

Every one of us has had a moment of supreme serenity, a memory of fulfillment and meaning, an experience of being plugged in—of being in the zone, at some point in our life. When we feel vulnerable and exposed to environments that threaten our spiritual equanimity, we must return to those moments, those memories, that form our spiritual life anchor.

Jacob’s son Joseph had a similar experience. When he was a slave in Egypt, his master’s wife fell in love with him and propositioned him every day. He resisted her charms, but one day he felt particularly vulnerable and was inclined to accept her offer. At this moment, our sages tell us, Joseph envisioned the visage of Jacob and that gave him the strength to overcome.

Physically he was distant from his father, spiritually he was in a place that rejected his father’s core values, emotionally he was in a vulnerable position in an alien environment. But all he had to do, was dip his pail into the endless reservoir of inspiration provided by his memories. He had many special moments with his father. He plugged into them and the distance fell away. The years disappeared. He was once again the Joseph that stood before his father and the temptation fell away.

This is another lesson for us. When we are feeling vulnerable and at risk of being spiritually overcome, we can plug into a special moment in our lives when we felt that G-d was close. A time when we were in the bosom of our loving family. When our spouse peered deeply into our eyes and our children clung to our arms. Perhaps a memory of accompanying our parents to synagogue on Yom Kippur. Perhaps of chanting the prayers with friends in summer camp. Perhaps a memory of a moment in Israel when we felt especially connected to the Jewish people, when we felt a gripping sense of Jewish pride. These memories can ignite similar feelings within us now and carry the tide in moments of vulnerability. As Jacob invoked the memory of his fifteen years with his father and grandfather, so can we.

We know why Jacob prayed and we know why he prayed fifteen Psalms. But why did he choose the fifteen Psalms that begin with the words, “a song”? This was no time for merriment and singing. This was a time for prayer and soulful longing? This was a time of vulnerability and the quest for connection. Why did Jacob choose Psalms that began with the notion of singing?

Because it reminded Jacob of a timeless truth. No challenge is without reward and in accordance with the pain, so is the gain. When Jacob was confronted by trial in Laban’s home, he knew that he was being summoned to tap an inner reservoir of strength that he had yet to tap.

Opposition prompts us to marshal resources that we never knew we had. Trials help us discover the sterner stuff of which we are made. Jacob flipped the script on this trial and instead of letting it get him down, he used it to lift him up. He didn’t view it as a chance to fall, he saw it as a chance to soar. When he was at home surrounded by honest people, he never had to work hard to be upfront and wholesome. It came naturally to him. In Haran this was a herculean task and only in Haran would he rise to this task. Only in Haran could he grow spiritually until he could overcome this challenge.

Jacob refused to see this as a negative and insisted it was a positive. Every time he was confronted by deviousness and immorality, he saw it as an opportunity for growth. Thus, he sang songs and rejoiced.

We can do the same. Rather than leave the bar with our tail between our legs brooding over it and wondering why we came on this trip, we can step into our room with our heads held high. Filled with joy and overcome with gratitude at the opportunity that G-d sent our way. He surrounded us with people of inferior values and we did not lower ourselves to them. This is truly a reason to rejoice.

A song of ascents—sing as you grow and ascend. Don’t cry. Go sing a song. The world belongs to you.[1]

[1] This essay is loosely based on Likkutei sichos 20, pp. 124–128.