The Torah portion of Vayishlach concludes by briefly listing the kings of Edom — the descendants of Esav — and their settlements. This is followed by the portion of Vayeishev , in which we are told how Yaakov settled in Canaan, and where the story of his progeny is related at great length.

The connection between Vayeishev and the conclusion of Vayishlach is explained by our Sages with the following parable:1

“It is analogous to a king who had a pearl that was cast in earth and thorns. The king had to probe the earth and thorns in order to recover the pearl. As soon as the king recovered the pearl he discarded the earth and thorns and occupied himself with his treasure.”

Here, too, it was impossible to describe Yaakov’s settling in Canaan and tell the story of his children without first summarizing the section about Edom, the descendants of Esav.

Why, indeed, was such a preface necessary? Also, the parable seems to imply that Jacob was “hidden” among Esav’s descendants, yet almost all the Edomites come on the scene after Yaakov’s passing. Additionally, why was the “pearl” found in the midst of both “earth” and “thorns”?

The purpose of Yaakov’s settling in Canaan was not only so that he and his children might inhabit Eretz Yisrael, but also, as Yaakov told Esav, so that he might remain within reach of his brother “until I come to [you], my lord, in Seir,”2 which refers — as Rashi explains3 — to the fulfillment of the promise “at the time of Mashiach’s coming… that ‘deliverers4 will go up to Mount Tzion to judge the mount of Esav.’ ”

It is this that our Sages imply with the parable of the pearl: The allusion is not merely to Yaakov’s settling in Eretz Yisrael, but to Yaakov’s ultimate goal — “coming to Seir.” Since this can be attained only by working within “the settlements of Esav and his progeny,” i.e., purifying and elevating the sparks of holiness concealed within physicality, Yaakov’s pearl is described as being concealed within the “earth and thorns” of Esav.

Herein lies a vital lesson for Jews during times of exile: The purpose of all exiles, and particularly of this final Exile, the exile of Edom, is to purify and elevate the sparks of holiness (the pearls) found in physical things5 — the earth and thorns.

Within physicality itself there are two distinct categories, alluded to by our Sages as “earth” and “thorns:”

“Earth” denotes permissible things that merely conceal sparks of holiness found within them. A Jew is able, through his spiritual service, to purify these sparks and elevate them.

“Thorns,” however, refer to material things that are prohibited, and that so profoundly conceal the holiness within them that in the normal course of events they must be cast aside.

Moreover, even after a person “recovers the pearl,” he must “discard the earth.” I.e., it is necessary for the person to indicate that the physical things in and of themselves are of no importance. He occupies himself with them only so that he may gain access to the sparks of holiness concealed within.

This is why “discarding the earth” is necessary in order to obtain the pearl: As long as physicality itself is important to the seeker, not only will he be unable to properly extricate the pearl, but it is quite possible that his occupation with physical matters will lead to his spiritual downfall.6

Only when a person’s every physical act is performed in a manner such that he that he disregards their corporeality will he be able to elevate the sparks of holiness concealed within matter. By doing so a person’s own spiritual stature is immeasurably enhanced as well.

Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. XV, pp. 302-307.