Midreshet Amit


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Spiritual Harmony - A Return to Self

By: Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb

The opening of this week's Torah portion describes Yaakov's safe return to the Land of Israel in the aftermath of his historic confrontation with Esav. In explaining how Yaakov emerged unscathed from this perilous threat, the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 84:1) explains that, like his children in future generations, "kinuso, ve'kinus banav hitzilu mi'yad Esav." The straight forward understanding of the Midrash is that the key to success was that the family of Yaakov - including those who didn't always get along with each other - came together as a unified group when they davened to Hashem for their safety.

The Sefas Emes (Va'yeshev 5631), however, offers an alternate understanding of the Midrash and explains that it actually refers to the inner harmony that Yaakov achieved; Yaakov "returned" - va'yeshev - to his true self. After many turbulent years spent battling against the influences of Lavan, Esav, and Shechem, Yaakov was finally able "gather together" and harmonize all of the different aspects of his personality. It was only at this point, explains the Sefas Emes, that Yaakov was able to be "nisyashev be'shorasho" and only now was he able to "return" to his essence and true self.

This understanding of the Midrash highlights the importance of spiritual harmony and, conversely, the danger of alienation. There are different forms of alienation - from the community, from a spouse, from children - but perhaps the most tragic is when a person is alienated from him or herself. Too often we allow external influences to create an artificial barrier between our actions and our essence, and instead of being true to ourselves we allow other people's values and expectations to determine the course of our lives. An essential component of Avodas Hashem - and life generally -is the ability to be "nisyashev be'shorasho," to be genuine and to live a life of inner harmony, aware of and consistent with who we really are. Yaakov was able to achieve this harmony and was thus saved from Esav.

The Sefas Emes further develops this idea by suggesting that the words Va'yeshev and Shabbos share a common etymological link (the Hebrew letters shin and beis). The deeper point, it seems, is that Shabbos is a uniquely opportune time for achieving spiritual harmony. Shabbos is an "island in time" which allows - nay, forces - us to retreat from the helter-skelter of daily life. By removing these external distractions we have the opportunity to achieve what the Sefas Emes refers to as "bitul le'ha-shoresh," an unimpeded return to the source. Considering the potential, how unfortunate would it be if we merely observe the technical requirements of Shabbos without taking advantage of this amazing gift.

Beyond the special power of Shabbos, R. Yitzchok Hutner suggests that, understood from a proper perspective, a Torah life can be lived in harmony all seven days of the week. Responding to a student who complained that he was living a "double life" - spiritual and professional - R. Hutner (Iggeros U-Kesavim #94) explains that the student was making a critical mistake in viewing the different aspects of his life as disconnected from each other. Rather than living an alienated, "double life," R. Hutner explains that the unity of Torah should connect all aspects of our existence into a "broad life." By properly placing Torah at the center, every aspect of our multifaceted lives - from secular to sacred - becomes harmonized and integrated into a seamless whole.

As in so many other areas of religious life, Yaakov is our role model when it comes to living with spiritual harmony. Yaakov, the personification of "Tiferes," was able to integrate all aspects of his life in a way that protected him from external threats, such as Esav, and provided inner blessing as well. May we merit to live up to this exalted standard as well.