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A Tale of Two Prophecies

Written by D FIne

After just one parsha in which Yitzchak is the ‘star of the show,’ our sedra moves the spotlight to the last of the Avos; Yaakov. We are told about Yaakov running from his father’s house to the house of Lavan, and hinted to the fourteen years which he spent in yeshiva in between.[1] We are then told of Yaakov’s marriage to Leah and Rachel and the children they have, as well as the twenty years of work Yaakov puts in for Lavan, with the sedra ending with Yaakov setting off back to Eretz Yisrael. Both the start and the end of the sedra depict Yaakov receiving a prophecy from HaShem. In the first prophecy,[2] HaShem comes to Yakkov in a dream (with the ladder) and both blesses and assures him. The prophecy at theend of the sedra,[3] however, is not in a dream, and in it HaShem tells Yaakov to return to Eretz Yisrael. The question to ask here goes a bit like this: a prophet is not chosen by lottery; (s)he is someone who has worked on themselves to achieve lofty spiritual levels[4] in order to be an appropriate vessel for receiving prophecy. Moreover, we have a rule that a prophecy in a dream is on a lower level than a prophecy received when awake. Thus, we may ask as follows:[5] at the start of the sedra Yaakov has just come from fourteen years’ learning in yeshiva and ‘only’ merits a prophecy in a dream – yet at the end of the sedra after working for twenty years and being around the evil Lavan, he now rises to a higher level of prophecy whilst awake; how can that be?
Like all good things, we shall begin with an introduction and later return to answering the question.[6] There are two means of serving HaShem and achieving one’s spiritual perfection, as it were. One is actively taking on evil and negative spiritual forces and in doing so uplift them; a good illustration is when we make a bracha on food to elevate the physical. The other is to put oneself beyond reach of evil, as it were, by putting oneself into a spiritual plane; a good illustration is the study of Torah. We shall call the first means sur me’ra (turning from evil) and the second aseh tov (doing good). Of course, both means are necessary and are not mutually exclusive. These two means should get clearer as we bring more examples.
Sefer Bereishis is the story of brothers who emphasised these dual roles. We are told that of Adam’s two sons, Hevel and Kayin, the former was a shepherd, whilst the latter worked the land.[7] Why did Hevel choose the profession of a shepherd? Rashi there tells us that because the land was cursed after Adam’s sin, Hevel did not want to work the land; so he chose shepherding instead. So what about Kayin; did he not care that the land had been cursed, what was his approach? Kayin wanted to take on and fight against this curse, and in doing so try and bring the world back to the spiritual plane that it occupied before Adam’s sin. These are the two approaches mentioned above; Hevel displayed the aseh tov characteristic, and avoided the evil of the curse, whilst Kayin aimed to take on the weight of the curse and fight against it. Perhaps this is the reason for Hevel’s name; it literally means ‘nothingness’ or ‘emptiness,’[8] but maybe the idea is that his role was to be more removed from the physical world (the aseh tov character), and ‘nothingness’ denotes a lack of physical space, symbolising a general removal from the space-defined physical world to instead be defined by the spiritual plane. However, Kayin’s plan of trying to battle with the evil carries with it the danger of being sucked in and being influenced by it, and this is exactly what happened. Thus, Kayin ended up killing his brother Hevel, and so did not succeed in this role. We fast-forward to another set of brothers; Yaakov and Esav.
Yaakov and Esav displayed these two roles two. Esav was born with an innate attachment to the physical world, whilst Yaakov was connected to the world of pure spirituality. Thus, Esav spent his day hunting, whilst Yaakov learnt Torah in an intense (and) in-tents fashion.[9] Esav was supposed to perform this role of sur me’ra; of taking on the dangers of the physical world, yet having the strength of character to uplift it for spiritual purposes. One example of this capability was the way in which he used his hunting skills for the mitzvah of honouring his parents by bringing them meals from the field. In fact, this was what Esav was trying to convey by asking Yitzchak how to take ma’aser (tithes) from salt and straw;[10] he was trying to pretend to his father that he was fulfilling his role of uplifting the physical world by using its raw materials for spiritual purposes. Yaakov, on the other hand, was the aseh tov character, and spent his time solely with spiritual pursuits. This is what Yitzchak wanted his blessings to achieve; he envisioned a partnership between Yaakov and Esav whereby Esav would supply the physical needs so that Yaakov would be free to devote himself to purely spiritual matters,[11] for this reflected the roles of Esav and Yaakov of sur me’ra and aseh tov respectively. However, this was not to be; Esav floundered in his mission and was sucked in to the physical world and its desires,[12] Now, because Esav was failing his role, Yaakov bought the birthright from Esav and with it came the sur me’ra role – so now Yaakov possessed both characteristics, which he inherited to us.
Going to the house of Lavan was the first real test of this sur me’ra role that Yaakov had taken on from Esav. The challenge was for Yaakov to be around this evil cheat, and even work for him, whilst maintaining his own qualities of honesty and commitment to HaShem. In short, Yaakov was now tackling the physical temptations and evil influences. He had moved on from being the ‘yeshiva bachur’ to entering the world of work with a spiritually lowly boss. And he survived with flying colours; the Torah openly records Yakkov’s uprightness and commitment to honest dealings with his work,[13] despite every effort of Lavan to cheat Yaakov of his wages. Now we can return to our original question; we asked how is it that Yaakov reached a higher level of prophecy in the house of Lavan than in his years in yeshiva? The answer is that Yaakov had now successfully fulfilled a new role of sur me’ra; of dealing with the evil and physical temptations of this world, which is harder in many ways than the ‘pure spiritual’ role he had been fulfilling until then. It was the challenge of taking all his spiritual energy and using it in the world for spiritual aims and not getting sucked in like Esav and Kayin. So Yaakov did raise himself up a level.
How did Yaakov accomplish this and not get sucked in? And in this, we shall find a message for ourselves. Yaakov Avinu made sure that he was spiritually equipped and had the correct perspective before dealing with this challenge. He spent years in yeshiva before entering Lavan’s house. In fact, this perhaps a meaning behind a cryptic Ba’al Haturim and Midrash this week. The midrash says that at the ladder at the start of the sedra, HaShem showed Yaakov Korach and Moshe, and the Ba’al Haturim comments that the word ladder (sulam) has the same gematria as money (mammon), because it can cause people to go up or down in life. What does this mean and what is the connection to this period in Yaakov’s life? Rabbi Frand explains that Yaakov had left yeshiva and was entering the physical world and the tests of money and materialism within it. HaShem thus showed Korach and Moshe to Yaakov; Korach’s wealth caused his downfall[14], whilst Moshe handled his wealth successfully and with the right perspective. HaShem was reminding Yaakov to strengthen himself by internalising the correct perspective and strength of character to survive the challenge of facing the material world that he was about to face.
The message for us to is to realise that there are times that call for focussing purely on the spiritual, and times that call for focussing on the physical things in this world but at the same time trying to uplift them by using them with the correct [spiritual] focus and perspective.
Have a great Shabbes,

[1] Rashi 28;9 and 28;11.
[2] Bereishis 28;12-15
[3] Bereishis 31;3
[4] See Rambam hilchos yesodei hatorah 7;1. Perhaps Bilam was an exception; he was given prophecy without possessing such refined spiritual assets so the non-Jews would not have a complaint against HaShem (see Rashi Bamidbar 22;5).
[5] I think this is Rav Avigdor Miller’s question
[6] This ‘introduction’ part is from Rav Moshe Shapira, if I am not mistaken
[7] Bereishis 4;2
[8] The word hevel comes up many times in Koheles, eg 4;4, 4;8, 8;10, 8;14, 9;9
[9] Bereishis 25;27
[10] Midrash brought in Rashi Bereishis 25;27
[11] Sefer ‘Lekach Tov’
[12] Rashi 26;34 quotes that for forty years, Esav would kidnap women from their husbands and rape them, so much was he sucked into physical, base desires.
[13] Bereishis 31;38-42
[14] Gemarra Pesachim 119a

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