Have you ever lifted your head out of a really good book in the wee hours of the morning when no one else is awake and felt transported to a different time and place? That feeling you get when the world is silent, everyone’s sleeping, and your mind has been buzzing for hours in a fantasy land with characters so complex, so compelling, and so magical, you can almost feel your fingers stretching into an exciting promised land just beyond the edges of your boring living room?

You put the book down and walk around in a half-daze, imagination fired up, mind whirring. It feels like anything can happen.

I’ve been there. It’s intoxicating.

Then I went to sleep, woke up the next morning with a pre-caffeine headache, and it was all over very quickly.

How can I capture that feeling again? Should I burn the midnight oil every night? Is “magic” only for late night hours?

A Strange Gift

Precisely this tension plays out in a dramatic encounter between the couldn’t-be-more-different twins, Jacob and Esau—the former as a righteous man of Torah scholarship, the latter as a murderous, raping brute.

After a scuffle that sees Jacob fleeing for his life, they don’t see each other for many years. And so the parshah of Vayishlach1 opens, with Jacob journeying back home, now fully grown, with a large family and significant wealth, preparing to greet his brother once again.

But Jacob is nervous. “Does he still hate me, or has he come to terms with his successful baby brother?” he wonders.

Not leaving anything to chance, he develops a three-pronged strategy: He turns to G‑d in prayer, sends an impressive gift package ahead to his brother to demonstrate his own good intentions, and then divides his family into two camps in anticipation of an attack.

All’s well that ends well, and the two brothers embrace, demonstrating peace (at least outwardly), and then part ways—to each their own.

Now, there are some details in Jacob’s strategy that tell us what he really wanted to do—and can help us navigate life’s mind-numbingly boring times.

We’ll focus on one detail—Jacob’s decision to send gifts. Foreshadowing the sacrifices his descendants would one day offer in the Temple, Jacob sent a sacrificial gift to his brother, mostly goats, sheep and cows, but also some camels and donkeys2 —non-kosher animals. Usually, holy people favor items that are conventionally holy, or at the very least, not unholy. Certainly if he intends to evoke the future Temple offerings, only kosher animals would do. So why did Jacob send a non-kosher camel as a gift?

Jacob Reaches for the Stars

Kabbalah blows the story open and tells an entirely different, cosmic narrative about this brotherly encounter.3

You see, Jacob was from the world of tikun, which we’ll translate as “discipline.” He was straight, holy, and tempered with everything he did. With a perfect mix of love and restraint—not too passionate, but not at all apathetic—Jacob was a master who was whole, both spiritually and materially. All his children were righteous, and he never faltered in his observance.

Esau was the exact opposite. He was wild and excessive. Murderer, strongman, from one woman to the next—he did it all. But Kabbalah tells us something fascinating about this man: He was from another world called tohu, the world of “chaos.” There’s a lot to say about that world, but in a few words, it’s a spiritual world where the energy is so intense, so untempered, it finds no appropriate container.

Sort of like that teacher you once had who was so brilliant, he or she was somewhat crazy. Or the artist who can’t button his shirt correctly. Too much energy, not enough containers.

The world of tohu, of chaos, is a lot of fun—but it doesn’t really work. A world full of crazy geniuses and hapless creatives may be attractive, but it breaks down pretty quickly. So G‑d scratched that world and created tikun—the disciplined, tempered world in which we all operate.

But Esau was from tohu. That’s why he was so extreme, so crazy… and so bad. Because in the world of chaos, things can be extremely good, or sadly, extremely bad. Esau possessed explosive potential; the bad news was that it exploded. But the potential was always there.

Jacob knew about that potential, and he wanted it. As much as he was perfect, Jacob wanted to reach for the stars, to incorporate a little chaos in his life to take things to the next level. Of course, his family was (almost) perfect, his Divine observance was perfect, and he probably didn’t have any credit card debt either. But he wanted more than just boring perfection. He wanted some of that magical chaos that only his brother possessed.

So he sent him a gift. What kind of gift? Well, Jacob figured that to reach for the stars, to extend his world beyond the contours of his current paradigm, he needed something different, something totally counterintuitive. Kosher animals alone wouldn’t do. He would have to do something almost sacrilegious. It was time to break the glass ceiling, offer up non-kosher animals, and see what that bold move would trigger.

It didn’t work. Jacob met Esau and realized that he was still a brute. Potential still squandered. And it was then that he realized that chaos can be magical, but we don’t live in a magical world, rather a disciplined one. A world with discretion, determination, and slow progress.

Keep Your Balance

Jacob’s efforts and subsequent realization are what we need today.

Think about it: The drive to do something crazy makes so much sense. Even Jacob felt that he—and his subsequent children (that’s us!)—deserved something more. They deserve a little spice, some tohu craziness to mix it up.

You know, a week or so to run off to the desert and create art. And then burn it down.

Or, more realistically speaking, a spontaneous vacation, or a one-off experience like skydiving or doing a tough mudder race. Or even something less dramatic like staying up too late for too many nights reading a really good book.

Now, I’m not arguing that you can never do those things. Sure, if it’s your thing, go ahead. If it’s what you really need, who am I to argue?

What’s important to remember is that the drive to do something super creative, something so out of your routine, a superlative experience that will shock even yourself, a free-spirited adventure where “everything’s okay” can sometimes be a drive to tohu land: an unhealthy leap into a chaotic world that looks intoxicating and indeed has the potential to unlock your boringness, but can actually be a death trap.

An Esau.

It’s all about achieving the right balance. Yes, life can be hopelessly boring and can drive you to do some pretty insane things. And sometimes—big stress on the sometimes—that can actually be a good thing. But not always. Sometimes it’s just a camel when it’s supposed to be a cow. A non-kosher offering to a pagan god, when a tempered down, kosher version is what’s in order.

Like I said, proceed with caution. Find the spirituality, the magic, the excitement within your regular life, and then once in a while, spice it up. Most importantly, work hard to maintain proper tension between the two drives.

I’ll meet you on the mountaintop.