A constant challenge for each individual, and also for the Jewish people as a whole, is how one balances the spiritual dimension of life with worldly, materialist activities. On the one hand there is prayer, Torah study, spiritual mitzvot like lighting candles for Shabbat and a contemplative approach to life. On the other, there are the humdrum practicalities, material pursuits and more earthy aspects of living in the daily world.

Another version of this divide is that between the Jewish people and other nations. This, too, represents a delicate balance. On the one hand, there is the need to preserve Jewish identity and the singular nature of Jewish values and culture; on the other, there is the wish to play a useful part in society as a whole.

A passage in this week’s Torah reading, Vayeitzei,1 helps us understand the subtlety of these relationships.

Jacob was living in the home of his idolatrous uncle Laban. He married Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, and worked for his uncle as a shepherd. Yet at every stage Laban tried to cheat him. As a result, Jacob and his wives determined to run away.

Laban and his men pursue Jacob. When they meet, they agree to create a clear border between them, and build a pile of stones to mark the boundary.2 Laban’s territory will be to the east of the pile of stones, and Jacob’s to the west. They declare that neither they nor their descendants will ever cross that border for war. Rashi comments: “but they can cross it for business dealings.”3

In chassidic teachings, the border between Jacob and Laban is seen as the divide between the sacred and the profane. This distinction is important. One has to know clearly what represents the Jewish dimension of holiness, and what does not.

Yet here comes a subtlety. The Hebrew word for the pile of stones is gal. This word also means “reveal.” There is a border, but sometimes, with care, one crosses the border. The purpose for doing so is in order to reveal and establish holiness in a realm which until now has been ordinary, non-holy, secular.

How can this be done? Through the mitzvahs of the Torah, which involve the practical world yet connect it with infinite G‑dliness. One earns money—that is surely a worldly, mundane activity. Yet from the money one has earned, one donates a portion to charity. This is a mitzvah of the highest order of sanctity. Through this, all the money one earns is elevated to connect with the divine.

The laws of the Torah help one understand on which side of the pile of stones one should be. So too do Torah teachings, especially those which express the spiritual, inner dimension of Jewish teaching. Hence the word gal, a pile of stones, also has the numerical value (gematria) of 33, hinting at the 33rd day of the Omer, the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the famous author of the Zohar, the source-book of the Kabbalistic side of Judaism.

Knowledge of Torah teachings, and especially of their inner aspect, helps the person in his or her path through life, providing a sense of balance. One knows when to go forward, and when to withdraw; when Jacob must remain in his own territory, and when his or her task is to advance into that of Laban and reveal the latent holiness and goodness which is hidden in all existence.

For this is the true task of every Jew . . .