This week’s Torah reading elaborately describes the life of Yaakov our Patriarch in the house of Lavan, relating how he was preoccupied primarily with [activities] involving sheep. He worked as a shepherd, and the payment he received from Lavan was in the form of sheep.

(The fundamental) dimension of Yaakov’s property was sheep, and from this he became wealthy: “And the man became exceedingly prosperous. He attained fertile sheep (— and from these sheep he also obtained —) maidservants, servants, camels, and donkeys.”1 As Rashi2 comments: “He would sell his sheep at an expensive price and purchase all the above.”3

Nevertheless, we see in Parshas Vayishlach, when Yaakov [instructs his agents] to convey a message to Esav, he describes his property in the following order:4 “I have acquired oxen and donkeys, sheep, servants, and maidservants.” He mentions sheep after “oxen and donkeys,”5 and not as his first and fundamental acquisition. In particular, this represents a change from yet another verse which describes that when Yaakov fled from Lavan:6 “He led away (first) all of his herds [of sheep] (and only then) all of his property... what he had purchased with his herds.”7


Every concept in the Torah is an eternal lesson for every Jew in every place and time. In particular, this applies with regard to the “deeds of the Patriarchs” which are related in the Torah8 — and how much more so does this apply with regard to a concept that fills almost an entire Torah reading. They are [certainly] “a sign to their descendants,” endowing the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov with the power to carry out [the appropriate] Divine service.

It is thus understandable that the particulars involving Yaakov’s work with sheep —

a) that the sheep brought about Yaakov’s [prodigious wealth]: “And the man became exceedingly prosperous”;

b) that although his primary property was sheep, he nevertheless exchanged (a portion of) his sheep for “maidservants, servants, camels, and donkeys”;

c) with regard to the [present] sent to Esav, he mentioned sheep after “oxen and donkeys” —

are all significant with regard to the spiritual service of every Jew.


The above can be understood by first explaining the manner in which the Midrash9 [chooses to] describe the Jews’ bond with G‑d:“He will be a Father to me and I will be a son to Him.... He will be a Shepherd to me... and I will be sheep to Him.” There is a well-known question with regard to this teaching: Since the Jews are compared to G‑d’s sons, what is added by saying that they are like His sheep? On the contrary, how can the manner in which a shepherd cherishes sheep be compared to the manner in which a father cherishes a son?

The explanation given10 is that it is precisely this factor that is significant.

The fact that the Jews are called sons shows that they are an independent entity with regard to their relation to their Father (G‑d). [True,] the bond between a Jew and G‑d does not resemble that of a [father and a] son on this physical plane, [for] in that instance, the son has become a separate entity from his father, while the soul, by contrast, is “entirely one (with G‑d) and is not separate at all.”11 Nevertheless, using the analogy of a son implies that it is as if [the soul] is an independent entity (and is not the Father).12 [Since he is an independent entity,] his existence and cherished quality is significant to the Father. [These concepts] can apply only with regard to the Divine light that [enclothes itself] in the spiritual cosmos,13 and which serves as a source for the created beings. In relation to that level, [the souls] are significant.

With regard to the G‑dly light that transcends the spiritual cosmos, by contrast — [the level of which it is said:] “He has neither son nor brother”14 — it is not relevant to speak of any existence outside of His own Being. With regard to this level, the Jewish people (and their cherished quality) are compared to sheep. For sheep (and their cherished quality) have no significance in relation to the essence of the shepherd.

Conversely, however, this is also a sign of the unique level of the Jewish people, that even on the level of G‑dliness where there is no place for the existence of created beings — “He has neither son nor brother” — the cherished nature of the Jewish people still exists.15

On this level, however, the Jews’ cherished quality comes not because of their identity but, on the contrary, because of [their transcendence of their identity and] the awesome bittul to G‑d [which they display]. This bittul is a medium for the Divine light that tran­scends the spiritual cosmos, as it is written:16 “I dwell in exaltedness and holiness, but I am with the broken and the lowly-spirited.”

This concept — the awesome bittul [exhibited by the Jewish people] — is alluded to in the comparison of the Jews to sheep. For as we see in actual life, sheep possess the quality of bittul more than other animals.17


These two analogies for the Jewish people — sons and sheep — allude to two approaches in man’s Divine service.18 The level of son relates to Torah study. This service focuses on intellectual understanding and comprehension. (In this service, the person studying feels significant. [After all,] he is appreciating the Torah through his[own]powers of comprehension.)

In order that his study focus on the true intent of the Torah, his [study] must be characterized by bittul. Onlythrough [the approach of] “my soul will be as dust to all” is it possible for [him to experience]: “open my heart to Your Torah”19 (as explained with regard to [the obligation to] recite the blessings for Torah study before [studying]).20 This bittul serves as a foundation and preparation for Torah study. The Torah study itself, however, is carried out (not with bittul, but on the contrary) with the power of intellect.

The analogy of sheep points to our Divine service of refining [the world at large]. צאן, Hebrew for sheep, relates to the word יציאה, “departure,”21 going out from the four cubits of Torah and occupying oneself with worldly affairs to transform them into a dwelling in the lower realms.

This path of Divine service expresses a Jew’s true bittul to G‑d, his transcendence of his personal existence. For he does not perform this Divine service for himself, to reach fulfillment or to ascend [tohigherspiritual levels]. (Indeed, the contrary is true; his involvement with worldly matters is a descent for him. He must interrupt his study of the Torah in which he invests his highest and most refined powers and involve himself in matters involving deed.) This service is performed only to carry out G‑d’s will, to make a dwelling for Him in the lower realms.22


Based on the above, we can understand the connection between the concept of sheep and Yaakov’sDivine service in Lavan’s home.

There is a fundamental difference between Yaakov’s Divine service during the period described in Parshas Toldos and his Divine service which is described in Parshas Vayeitzei.23 Parshas Toldos describes Yaakov’s Divine service according to the analogy of a son. He was “a sincere man, dwelling in tents,”24 interpreted by our Sages25 as referring to the tents of Shem and the tents of Ever. Even the conclusion of the Torah reading which relates that Yaakov had to flee from his father’s house does not mark a cessation of his connection with constant Torah study. On the contrary, he “hid in the house of Ever for fourteen years”26 and studied the Torah there.

Parshas Vayeitzei, by contrast, speaks about Yaakov’s departure from the realm of Torah study and his arrival in Charan — [a place whose name indicates] that it was [the focus of] G‑d’s anger in the world27 — and in the house of Lavan. There he worked as a shepherd (also) in the simple sense of the word, serving [Lavan] with all his strength.28 (Indeed, Yaakov’s conduct serves as a model for the dedication that a worker must show his employer.)29

This service [of herding sheep brought out Yaakov’s true, inner spiritual core]. Despite the immense concealment and hiddenness [of G‑dliness that he experienced] in Lavan’s home, Yaakov remained unaffected. “I lived with Lavan and I observed the 613 mitzvos.”30 There he established [his family,] the tribes of G‑d, in a manner that [caused our Sages to comment:] “His progeny is perfect.”31 This Divine service evoked the ultimate bittul from Yaakov.

It is possible to say that this is the (inner) reason why the greaterpart of the property that Yaakov earned and took with him from the house of Lavan was sheep. For sheep allude to the spiritual peak that he attained through his Divine service in the house of Lavan, the quality of bittul,32 as explained above.

{This is alluded to in the expression ויפרוץ האיש מאד מאד, translated as “and the man became exceedingly prosperous.” ויפרוץ means to “break through,” to overcome limitations. For through bittul (identified with sheep), one can overcome all the limits of the spiritual cosmos and approach the Divine light that has no limitations: מאד מאד (i.e., מאד [which alludes to an unlimited quality] is repeated twice).33

[This sequence continues] as reflected in the chassidic34 — and positive-oriented— interpretation of the verses:35 “He changed my wages ten times.... If he said: ‘The spotted ones will be your wages....’ ‘...the ringed ones.’ ” Yaakov drew down “the essential will of the source of emanation.” This level is above any division or form. Hence his wages were continually changed from one form to another.}


The Divine service of a son, which is dependent on one’s understanding and comprehension (i.e., one’s personal existence), must also be carried out in a manner of bittul (as stated in sec. IV). Similarly, the Divine service of sheep that is characterized (primarily) by bittul must(bring into expression) all the powers of one’s soul, [even] his personal existence.

Nevertheless, [expressing one’s personal identity is important]. For bittul and lowliness alone are not sufficient to combat the concealment and hiddenness [of G‑d] in the world. Instead, it is necessary [to follow] the directive found in the very beginning of the Tur (and the Shulchan Aruch):36 “Be bold as a leopard... and valiant as a lion.” One must employ the quality of boldness37 “not to be embarrassed when confronted by mockers” and the quality of valor “to overcome his [evil] inclination and conquer it, like a mighty man who overcomes his adversary, vanquishing him and throwing him to the ground.”38

In this, however, it must be clarified that one must act as a result of his bittul to G‑d’s will. For if his valor were to come as a result of his own self-concern, it would be the opposite of holiness. Accordingly, such conduct cannot serve as the proper assistance in his battle against mockers and opponents to the Torah and its mitzvos.

(In addition, when one fights with the strength that stems from his personal existence, [his own “I,”] it is conceivable that he will not be victorious in battle. For it is possible that the opposing side is fortified with a greater measure of that type of boldness.)

Instead, it is when he [exhibits boldness] because the Torah commanded him to, that his boldness and valor can vanquish any opponent. It is possible to explain that this is the inner reason why the Tur (and the Alter Rebbe in Shulchan Aruch HaRav)39 also quote the name of the author of that statement: Yehudah ben Teima. [His name is mentioned] to allude40 to the fact that being “bold as a leopard” comes as a result of the approach [implied by his name] Yehudah ben Teima. Yehudah reflects the Divine service of acknowledgment41 and bittul.42 [Moreover,] it is not sufficient that the approach of bittul will merely be a preface at the beginning of one’s Divine service. Instead, Yehudah is ben Teima,43 [the latter term implying] that one’s bittul must be a constant factor, [continually] expressed in the conduct of being “bold as a leopard.”44 For when one expresses the qualities of boldness and valor [as the Torah commands], it is very possible to slip into ordinary boldness and valor.45


On this basis, we can understand the particulars mentioned in secs. I and II with regard to Yaakov’s sheep. Generally, [Yaakov’s] Divine service (and [therefore] his property) centered on sheep, as explained above. Nevertheless, he did not remain content with this. Instead, he included in his property “maidservants, servants, camels, and donkeys.” For in order to carry out the task of refinement as required (including also the refinement of Esav which he would face later), all the different types of Divine service (that are alluded to by these types of property)46 were necessary.

[When including these other elements, however,] two points of clarification must be made:

a) Yaakov increased his property by acquiring the other assets through (exchanging) sheep. This implies that they were not considered independent aspects of Divine service, but an outgrowth of the Divine service of bittul.

b) Even afterwards, he did not exchange all of his sheep for other assets. On the contrary, even then sheep were the major part of his property. For even when entering the battle with the concealment and hiddenness [of G‑d] within the world, where power and valor are necessary, the feelings of bittul mustremain a fundamental quality.


In light of the above, we can appreciate why [Yaakov] did not mention sheep as the first type of property he possessed when sending mes­sengers to Esav, despite the fact that it represented the majority of his property. By saying: “I have acquired oxen and donkeys, sheep, ser­vants, and maidservants,” Yaakov was mentioning the merits47 and lofty powers that would sustain him. In this way, he would frighten Esav and cause him to refrain from carrying out his designs.

For this reason, [Yaakov] did not mention sheep first. [As mentioned above, sheep] reflect the qualities of bittul, lowliness, and submission. And to frighten Esav, it was primarily necessary to have him first appreciate Yaakov’s strength.

He must know that Yaakov owns sheep, i.e., that he is characterized by bittul. Hence, [he will know that Yaakov’s] strength is not his own personal valor, but the strength of holiness. Nevertheless, with what do we frighten [Esav]? With power.

This, however, applies with regard to what impresses one’s opponent. For oneself, he must know and remember the truth, that his power is an extension of his bittul,and a Jew’s primary resources are sheep.48


The obvious directive that results from the above (in our generation) is: We must carry out the order of Divine service [related to Parshas] Vayeitzei [that focuses on] going out to the world and illuminating it. Before this, one must prepare by studying Torah in the tents of Shem and Ever. But to attain [the peak of] “And the man became exceedingly prosperous,” i.e., “fill[ing] up the land and conquer[ing] it,”49 one must go out to the world and occupy himself with illuminating it.50

On the contrary, in this era of ikvesa diMeshicha, when Mashiach’s approaching footsteps can be heard, the primary dimension of our Divine service is deed.51 In the era of the Talmud, Torah study was the fundamental element [of Divine service. This is no longer true in the present age. Indeed,] as reflected in the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch,52 there is no one in the present age of whom it can be said: “his Torah is his occupation” (as was the level of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his colleagues). Not even a small percentage of the Jewish people are on that level, because the fundamental Divine service of the present era is deed, actual tzedakah.

In particular, this applies in the present generation when the efforts to find Jews blundering in the darkness of exile and bring them to the light of the Torah and its mitzvos [must be carried out on the most fundamental level]. We are not speaking about making a common person a scholar, making a lesser scholar a greater scholar, or [even] making a person who is lax in his observance of mitzvos a genuinely G‑d-fearing individual. We are talking about saving lives!

We must save the lives of a Jew and his descendants, insuring that they remain Jewish and conduct themselves (beginning with their actual deeds) as a Jew must conduct himself.


To add another point: In order that one’s efforts will find great success, they must be carried out in a manner of bittul. They must be carried out for the sake of fulfilling G‑d’s mission of illuminating the exile.

When one carries out his mission with bittul, his efforts are not correspondent to the limits of his nature and satisfaction.53 It does not make that much difference to him where G‑d sends him. Wherever G‑d’s providence directs him, with whichever people he comes in contact, he invests all of his power and all of his strength to raise up “many students,”54 surpassing all boundaries and limits in a manner where “the man becomes exceedingly prosperous.”

When one proceeds with the attitude that one must carry out G‑d’s mission, one is successful with all types of students. [To paraphrase the Torah reading:] “If he said: ‘The spotted ones will be your wages....’ If he said: ‘The ringed ones....’ All the sheep gave birth....”; i.e., all of the students grow up in the desired manner. Moreover, “they are more fertile than other sheep.”55 One’s “progeny is perfect”; there are no flaws in one’s offspring, i.e., students.

This prepares each Jew — and all Jews — for the true and ultimate Redemption. In this Redemption, not one Jew will remain in exile, as we have been promised:56 “You, the children of Israel, will be gathered one by one,” and “a great congregation will return here.”57 May this take place in the immediate future.

(Adapted from Sichos Yud Kislev, 5737)