Enjoy four short thoughts and a video adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on Parshat Vayeitzei.

Descent for the Purpose of Accent

In the 28th chapter of Genesis, the Torah recounts Jacob’s departure from the Holy Land, where he had spent the first half of his life immersed in the “tents of learning,” and his journey to Haran. In Haran, Jacob worked for twenty years in the employ of his conniving uncle, Laban, in the midst of a corrupt and debased society. Throughout it all, Jacob remained true to G‑d and man, serving Laban honestly, he prospered materially, amassing considerable wealth. In Haran, Jacob also married and fathered eleven of the twelve sons who were to yield the twelve tribes of Israel.

Jacob’s journey to Haran is the story of every soul’s descent to earth. The soul, too, leaves a spiritual idyll behind—an existence steeped in divine awareness and knowledge—to struggle in the employ of a “Laban” in a Haran environment. For the material state is a nefarious deceiver, accentuating the corporeal and obscuring the G‑dly, confusing the soul’s priorities and perpetually threatening its virtue. But every soul is empowered, as a child of Jacob, to make this a “descent for the purpose of ascent,” to emerge from the Haran of material earth with its integrity intact and its memory true.

Indeed, not only does it return with its spiritual powers galvanized by the challenge, it is also a “wealthier” soul, having learned to exploit the forces and resources of the physical world to further its spiritual ends. Most significantly, in its spiritual state the soul is perfect but childless; only as a physical being on physical earth can it fulfill the divine mitzvot, which are the soul’s progeny and its link to the infinite and the eternal.
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This week’s Torah reading, Vayeitzei, is glutted with sheep: Laban’s sheep and Jacob’s sheep; white sheep, and dark sheep. Jacob arrives in Haran, and the first sight to greet him is that of several flocks of sheep congregated around a sealed well; the second is his future wife, Rachel—the name is Hebrew for “sheep”—shepherding her father’s sheep. Soon Jacob is a shepherd himself, caring for sheep, receiving his wages in sheep, breeding sheep with special markings, dreaming of sheep, amassing a fortune in sheep, and finally leading his flocks back to the Holy Land where he will present his brother Esau with a huge gift comprised largely of . . . sheep.

“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, he who shepherds [me] among the roses” (Song of Songs 2:16). The voice of this verse, explains the Midrash Rabbah, is that of the community of Israel, speaking of her relationship with G‑d. “He is my shepherd, as it is written (Psalms 80:1), ‘Shepherd of Israel, hearken’; and I am His sheep, as it is written (Ezekiel 34:31), ‘And you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture’” ( Midrash Rabbah on this verse).

The sheep’s dominant trait is its docility and obedience. The child obeys his father, but does so out of an appreciation of his father’s greatness; the sheep does not obey for any reason—it is simply obedient by nature.

Being a Jew means studying the divine wisdom (revealed to us in His Torah), developing a passionate love and reverent awe for G‑d, and teaching His wisdom and implementing His will in an oft-times hostile world—all of which require the optimal application of our mental, emotional and assertive powers. But the foundation of it all, the base from which all these derive and upon which they are all predicated, is our simple commitment to G‑d—a commitment that transcends reason and emotion.
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Prayer in the Evening

This week’s Torah reading describes how our Patriarch Jacob, fleeing his brother Esau, left his home and went to Haran. It was a lonely journey. As night fell, he “encountered the place.” Our Sages interpret the word vayifga, translated as “encountered,” as a reference to prayer. There Jacob stopped to pray. In danger and lacking personal resources, he entreated G‑d and asked for His assistance. With this prayer, he instituted the obligation of evening prayers each night. Abraham had instituted the morning prayers; Isaac, those of the afternoon. And with this prayer, Jacob established the obligation to pray at night.

There is a great difference between praying during the day and praying at night. During the day, the sun is shining. The light and brightness of the physical setting is representative of its spiritual backdrop. Day refers to times and situations where G‑dliness is apparent. That’s when Abraham and Isaac prayed.

Jacob, by contrast, prayed at night, metaphorically, when G‑dliness is hidden and one must combat darkness.

The difference reflects the spiritual mission that the patriarchs carried out. Abraham and Isaac were concerned primarily with drawing down holiness and spreading G‑dly light. They were associated with “the day”; they lived in a setting of holiness and their divine service involved amplifying and spreading that light. Jacob, by contrast, went down to Haran, a place whose very name indicates that it aroused G‑d’s fury and wrath.

This goal cannot be achieved through man’s efforts alone. For according to nature, darkness is in direct opposition to light, light does not brook darkness, nor darkness light. How can darkness be transformed into light? By tapping an infinite G‑dly power that knows no limitations, a source of energy above both light and darkness. Therefore, when night falls and Jacob confronts his mission, he reaches to G‑d in prayer, asking Him for assistance in transforming darkness into light.
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Physical Objects

The Torah portion of Vayeitzei details Yaakov’s 20-year stay in Laban’s house. During this time he was involved in tending Lavan’s sheep, as Yaakov himself testified: “With all my might I served.”

Still, it was specifically during this period that he enjoyed his greatest successes, moreover, it was expressly with Laban that Yaakov merited to father the Jewish tribes, establishing the House of Israel.

How was it that Yaakov attained such spiritual success not during a time of concentrated Torah study, but while a laborer in Laban’s household?

The purpose of the spiritual service of the Jewish people in general is to purify and refine this physical world. This is accomplished through studying Torah and performing mitzvos with physical objects, doing all things “for the sake of Heaven,” and thereby sanctifying the physical world so that it becomes a fit vessel for G‑d’s sanctity. At the conclusion of this service — with the arrival of Moshiach — the entire world shall be a “dwelling place” for G‑d.

This also explains why, throughout Jewish history, most Jews have been primarily engaged in earning a living rather than in Torah study: Transforming the world into a dwelling place for G‑dliness is accomplished primarily by interacting with it and making it holy.

This is also why Yaakov’s spiritual and material success, and his founding of the House of Israel, was accomplished in the house of Laban in Haran — a place that evoked “Divine wrath” — and during a time when he could not concentrate on Torah study. For the “dwelling place” is established by descending into the lowest of levels and transforming even them into holiness.
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Rachel named her son ‘Joseph,’ as a prayer: “May G‑d add to me a different son.” The Tzemach Tzedek explains: Rachel prayed that Joseph have the ability to transform someone “different” – someone far from G‑dliness, into a “son” – someone righteous, like himself:”