Shortly after landing my first job, I approached my employer with the following 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 was not amused.

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

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

The Jewish visionary will meditate upon G‑d’s infinite greatness and inspire within himself a boundless love for Him. He will tremble in awe and revel in ecstasy. He will scale spiritual 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 mitzvot, G‑d is rewarded. In the vision, we serve our own spiritual needs; in the mitzvot, 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.

Crossing the River

In the Parshah (Torah reading) of Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4–36:43), we read how Jacob and his family crossed the Jabbok River.2 Jacob planted one foot on the near bank and the other foot on the far bank to form a human bridge, and transferred his possessions across the river.

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. The Torah tells us that at this point “Jacob remained alone” on his side of the river.3

The Midrash suggests that in emphasizing 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.4

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 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 in his uncle Laban’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 satisfy G‑d’s agenda.

An Aura Revealed

Though G‑d is transcendent, He projected 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 divine knowledge and observance of the divine commandments.

It was Jacob’s task to reveal the auras concealed within the homes of Laban and Esau. 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.5

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 unholy environment of his uncle’s home.6

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. Constantly on guard, always alert to the spiritual dangers. Surely, Jacob’s soul pined for the pure atmosphere of the home of his parents, the saintly Isaac and Rebecca.

Crossing the river was a significant step in that direction, a metaphoric crossing from impurity to sanctity.7 Jacob 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. Could he be consumed by inspiration but not succumb to its temptation? Could he live in the world of vision and yet be committed to the duty of detail?

This may have been Jacob’s inner reason for straddling the river, one foot firmly planted on the practical bank, the other foot apprehensively 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.8 He knew he had to act. 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.