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Home » Vayishlach

Vayishlach : Two Tracks

Submitted by on November 24, 2004 – 12:44 pmNo Comment | 8,886 views

Shortly after landing my first job I approached my employer with a proposal. “You are a visionary but are not pragmatically grounded. I lack your vision but have a pragmatic knack for detail. I propose that you determine the overall vision for our company and I will determine the detailed policy.” Needless to say my employer did not take kindly to my words.

While lacking in tact, I am convinced that my proposal was of sound logic. Every successful business must function on two tracks, the visionary and the practical.

In Judaism there are also two tracks. The vision consists of transcendence and inspiration, the practical track is the actual Mitzvos.

The Jewish visionary will meditate upon G-d’s infinite greatness and inspire a boundless love for him. He will tremble in awe and rejoice in ecstasy. He will scale celestial heights and delight in the transcendence of his soul.

Actualizing the vision is the practical track. When love for G-d is channeled into fulfilling his will, when spiritual ecstasy is expressed in obedience to his commandments, when deep inspiration is poured into pragmatic detail, then the vision has been brought to practical expression.

In the vision we are rewarded, in the Mitzvos G-d is rewarded. In the vision we serve our own spiritual needs, in the Mitzvos we serve G-d’s interests. (1)

It is true that both tracks are necessary but we must recognize which is the means and which is the end. Pursuit of the vision is glamorous and rewarding but commitment to detail is what G-d desires most.

The River and the Pitcher

In our Parsha we read that Jacob and his family crossed the river “Yabok,” (2) He planted one foot on the near bank and the other foot on the far bank to form a human bridge, (3) and transferred his possessions across the river. (4)

Realizing that he had forgotten a number of trivial items he chose to leave his family and possessions behind and set off in search of those items. (5) The Torah tells us that at this point “Jacob remained alone” on his end of the river. (4)

The Midrash suggests that in commenting on Jacob’s “aloneness” the Torah indicates that Jacob was comparable to G–d. Just as G-d is exalted and alone so too was Jacob . (6)

How did Jacob attain this collegiality with G-d? It was not through spiritual ecstasy or meditative inspiration it was through his attention to detail. He had forgotten a simple earthenware pitcher (7) and went back to retrieve it.

What is the significance of this pitcher? To answer that we must first understand the purpose of Jacob’s sojourn to his uncle’s home and his later encounter with his brother Esau.

His uncle’s home and his brother’s company were not conducive to personal spiritual elevation. But Jacob was not there to satisfy his own agenda; he was there to serve G-d. (8)

An Aura Revealed

Though G-d is transcendent, He projects an aura of divine presence into the universe. This aura lies concealed; it is not permitted to make itself known to mankind. The patriarchs and their offspring were charged with revealing this aura through the propagation of monotheism and observance of the divine commandments.

The aura concealed within the home of Laban and Esau was doomed to forever lie concealed. It was Jacob’s task to reveal it. Every object that Jacob touched was utilized for the worship of G-d. In so doing Jacob elevated these objects to a higher plane. He revealed the aura within them and realized their G-dly potential. (9)

When he crossed the river and realized that he had left a few items on the other side he went back to retrieve them. He knew that the aura within them would otherwise remain forever imprisoned in the immoral environment of his uncle’s home. (10)

Consider the Circumstances

After twenty years in exile Jacob was finally returning home. During that time he was constantly on duty, always aware of his mission, continuously alert to the spiritual dangers that encircled him. Surely Jacob’s soul pined for the pure atmosphere of his parent’s home.

Crossing the river was a significant step in that direction, a metaphoric crossing from impurity to sanctity. (11) He was moving from the pragmatic track of duty to the visionary track of transcendence. One might have expected Jacob to forge ahead and never hesitate.

But as he crossed the river he paused in hesitation. Could he live in the world of vision and yet be committed to the duty of detail? Could he be consumed by inspiration but not succumb to its temptation?

This may have been Jacob’s inner reason for straddling the river, one foot firmly planted on the practical bank the other foot anxiously planted on the visionary bank. He passed his family and possessions across the divide and now had to make the move himself. Consumed with desire yet riddled with anxiety Jacob hesitantly let himself across.

He suddenly remembered that he had left a few items behind. At that moment he knew that the future hung in the balance. The hosts of heaven had gathered to see which way Jacob would lean and he knew he had to act. (12) He pulled himself back to the other bank and went in search of his items.

Eventually Jacob did cross. But not before he demonstrated that he could find a balance between the two worlds.


Every time we fulfill a Mitzvah we draw some of G-d’s energy into our world. The performer of the Mitzvah is sanctified. The object with which it was performed is consecrated. The environment in which it was performed is hallowed. See Tanya Ch. 37 (R. Schneeur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chassidus Chabad, 1745 – 1813)

  1. This phenomenon, however real, lies concealed from the human experience. We cannot perceive the divinity as it is drawn into ourselves. There is no tangible sense of spiritual elevation. It remains first and foremost, a duty. Contrast that with the experience of the vision (i.e. inspiration, joy and love) where we come away physically energized, knowing that we have just reached our spiritual summit. See Tanya ch. 35.  (R. Schneeur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chassidus Chabad, 1745 – 1813)
  2. An eastern tributary of the Jordan.
  3. See Rashi ibid. (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105 France) See also Sifsei Chachamim ibid. (R. Shabsai Bass, 1641-1718) For alternate views see Ebin Ezra ibid. (R. Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1092 –1167 Spain) and Baal Haturim ibid. (R.Yaakov ben Asher, 1270 – 1340 Toledo)
  4. Genesis 32, 23-25.
  5. Talmud tractate Chulin 91a.
  6. Bereishis Rabba 71, 1.
  7. See Sifsei Chachamim (R. Shabsai Bass, 1641-1718) Genesis 32, 25. Quoting Rashi’s commentary (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105 France) to a talmudic passage in Baba Kama 16a he argues that it was not necessarily a pitcher.
  8. Torah Ohr p. 21-22. (R. Schneeur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chassidus Chabad, 1745 – 1813)
  9. Torah Ohr p. 24. (R. Schneeur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chassidus Chabad, 1745 – 1813)
  10. See Lekutei Sichos v. XV p.280. (R. MM Schneerson Rebbe of Lubavitch 1902-1994)
  11. The Torah refers to Abraham as the Hebrew or Ivri, loosely translated as being from the other side of the (Euphrates) river. (13) The mystics have long seen this river as spiritually linked with the biblical river that flowed from Edan to water the garden. (14)Mankind can trace its history to the Garden of Eden, the destination of that river. The Patriarchs had their spiritual roots on the far bank of that river, i.e. the source of the river, which is Edan. They were therefore euphemistically titled Ivri, meaning, from the other side of the river.As Jacob crossed the river (though physically a different river) he was metaphorically crossing into a supernal realm, beyond the mundane. See Torah Ohr p. 25. (R. Schneeur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chassidus Chabad, 1745 – 1813)
  12. At that moment the hosts of heaven rejoiced but the angel of Esau was crestfallen. He engaged Jacobin a furious battle in en effort to restrain him. The Torah says that Jacobwrestled with an angel and bested him, forcing the angel to concede defeat. (5) The classic interpretation is that this was the angel of Esau.The Midrash however relates a fascinating perspective. The struggle was actually against Michael, the angel of benevolence, who came to prove that Jacobcould hold his own. You see, proclaimed Michael as he proudly conceded defeat, you bested a prominent angel. You are worthy of carrying the torch; you are a worthy patriarch to the Jewish nation, a worthy successor to Abraham and Isaac. (15)
  13. Genesis 14, 13. Joshua 24, 2-4. Bereishit Rabba 42, 8
  14. Genesis 2, 10.
  15. See Eliyahu Kitov (1912 – 1976 Israel) Vayishlach p. 127 see relevant footnotes.


Photograph of Dan River by Ofer Maor

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