This Torah portion is usually read on the Shabbos following Yud-Tes Kislev, the date which commemorates the release of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi from prison in Czarist Russia. R. Shneur Zalman, known as the Alter Rebbe, was the founder of the Chabad approach to Chassidism and his liberation is interpreted as marking the Rosh HaShanah of Chassidism, because from that time onward, the initiative to spread the wellsprings of Chassidism began a new phase of expansion.

To explain: Once the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the chassidic movement, ascended to the spiritual realms and encountered the soul of Mashiach. He asked him: “When are you coming?” Mashiach answered: “When the wellsprings of your teachings spread outward.”

R. Shneur Zalman’s release is considered as a turning point in this process, because through his teachings, Chassidism was made understandable intellectually and thus accessible to every Jew.

Before Chassidism was revealed, the masses of the Jewish people were beginning to lose touch with their spiritual heritage. Sure they remained proud Jews, but prayer and study did not hold the same interest for them as before. A certain coldness had crept into Jewish practice and there was distance between certain sectors in the Jewish community.

The Baal Shem Tov lit the spark of Divine fire that exists in every Jew. For each of us has a soul that is an actual spark of G‑d and the Baal Shem Tov showed how that spiritual potential could be accessed and in that way, breathed life and vitality into Judaism.

R. Shneur Zalman gave us the intellectual tools to understand and communicate the awareness of these concepts. In this manner, they were brought within reach of every Jew, even one whose path to spiritual feeling began with his mind.

Parshas Vayeishev

On the opening verse of this week’s Torah reading: “And Jacob dwelled in the land of his father’s sojourning,” our Sages comment: Jacob desired to dwell in prosperity. G‑d saw this and exclaimed: “Is not what is prepared for the righteous in the World to Come enough?” Immediately, thereafter Jacob was confronted with the ordeal of Joseph.

The passage is difficult to understand. We all want to live in prosperity. Why should that be denied to the righteous? Why should receiving a portion of the World to Come prevent them from living a comfortable existence in this world?

The resolution to these questions depends on an understanding of the process of the interrelation of material and spiritual existence. Every material entity has a spiritual life-force that maintains its existence. Without that spiritual energy, it could not be.

Nevertheless, there is a chasm separating the material from the spiritual. Although we can intellectually understand that spiritual life force exists, we cannot see, hear, or feel that life force with our physical senses.

A righteous man like Jacob wants to live a life of integrity, to see the spiritual mirrored in the physical. He does not desire mere physical prosperity. Instead, he wants to have his bond with Him expressed in all dimensions of his life, extending into the material realm. He seeks that the spiritual and the physical function in harmony like the body and the soul.

After his struggles and confrontations with Laban and Esau, Jacob thought he had reached a level of awareness where such a connection was possible. His trust and faith in G‑d had been tested through various tribulations and he had learned to see G‑d’s hand in all the different experiences he had undergone.

Unfortunately, however, much of his life had been filled with hardship. Now when one is undergoing difficulty, it is easier to understand that all of one’s trials come from G‑d. Because when life is challenging, one is forced to step back and contemplate. And when a righteous man like Jacob contemplates, he will become conscious of G‑d’s hand.

When, by contrast, things are going well, there is a natural tendency to enjoy them for what they are without thinking of anything more. It is harder to sense the spiritual when one is not compelled to look for it. Jacob thought he had gotten past that level. He felt that he was ready to be able to appreciate the spiritual even when he was enjoying success and well-being.

G‑d thought otherwise. Therefore He sent him another trial, perhaps the most serious he had faced, for his love for Joseph was great and through him, he remembered Joseph’s mother, Rachel, who had passed away.

What was the purpose of this anguish? To bring him to the prosperity that he desired. As we see, ultimately, when Joseph was established as the viceroy of Egypt, Pharaoh sent for Jacob and he lived 17 years in luxury, teaching Torah to his sons and grandsons. But for Jacob to reach this harmony between the physical and the spiritual, he needed this one last lesson.

Looking to the Horizon

The ultimate expression of the fusion of the material and the spiritual will come in the era of Mashiach. At that time, “there be neither famine, nor war, neither envy, nor competition for good things will flow in abundance and all the delights will be freely available like dust.” Nevertheless, there will be absolute harmony between the material and the spiritual, for “the occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d” and “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”

Jacob’s experience serves as a paradigm for his descendants as a whole. His trials and tribulations enabled him to appreciate G‑d’s hand in every factor of his life and thus prepared him to appreciate the spiritual dimension of the prosperity he would later achieve. Similarly, the trials which our people have undergone in the exile have sharpened our perception and prepared us for the direct appreciation of G‑dliness that will characterize the era of Mashiach.