Torah Weekly

For the week ending 10 December 2005 / 9 Kislev 5766

Parshat Vayeitzei

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Fleeing from Esav, Yaakov leaves Beer Sheva and sets out for Charan, the home of his mother's family. After a 14-year stint in the Torah Academy of Shem and Ever, he resumes his journey and comes to Mount Moriah, the place where his father Yitzchak was brought as an offering, and the future site of the Beit Hamikdash. He sleeps there and dreams of angels going up and down a ladder between Heaven and earth. G-d promises him the Land of Israel, that he will found a great nation and that he will enjoy Divine protection. Yaakov wakes and vows to build an altar there and tithe all that he will receive. Then he travels to Charan and meets his cousin Rachel at the well. He arranges with her father, Lavan, to work seven years for her hand in marriage, but Lavan fools Yaakov, substituting Rachels older sister, Leah. Yaakov commits himself to work another seven years in order to also marry Rachel. Leah bears four sons: Reuven, Shimon, Levi and Yehuda, the first Tribes of Israel. Rachel is barren, and in an attempt to give Yaakov children, she gives her handmaiden Bilhah to Yaakov as a wife. Bilhah bears Dan and Naftali. Leah also gives Yaakov her handmaiden Zilpah, who bears Gad and Asher. Leah then bears Yissachar, Zevulun, and a daughter, Dina. Hashem finally blesses Rachel with a son, Yosef. Yaakov decides to leave Lavan, but Lavan, aware of the wealth Yaakov has made for him, is reluctant to let him go, and concludes a contract of employment with him. Lavan tries to swindle Yaakov, but Yaakov becomes extremely wealthy. Six years later, Yaakov, aware that Lavan has become dangerously resentful of his wealth, flees with his family. Lavan pursues them but is warned by Hashem not to harm them. Yaakov and Lavan agree to a covenant and Lavan returns home. Yaakov continues on his way to face his brother Esav.


Medicine for the Soul

"and she said to Yaakov; Give me children, or else I die!" (30:1)

(Rashi explains that "Give me children" means "Pray for me!")

I have a friend who returned to his Jewish roots via the Himalayas. For several years he was deeply involved in Buddhism. When he subsequently discovered the depth and beauty of his own heritage he was surprised at how quickly he felt comfortable living a Jewish life: The radiance of Shabbat captivated him. The discipline of the dietary laws resonated with his regard for self-control. There was, however, one aspect of his newfound faith that continued to be problematic for him.


"How can prayer be meaningful if everyone has to use the same words? How can that be a personal expression of connection to G-d?" he would ask. "How can prayer be fixed at certain times? Is my heart supposed to open on demand?"

In truth, at the root of his question was a basic misunderstanding of the Hebrew word tefilla, woefully and inadequately translated into English as prayer. The verb lhitpalel to pray is a reflexive verb. Obviously, reflexive does not mean that we pray to ourselves, so why should the verb to pray be reflexive?

The root of the word hitpalel is pillel, which means to judge. To understand the connection between praying and judging, we must understand the deeper function of a judge. A judge takes conflicting evidence, disunion, and injects into this situation of confusion Divine Truth as revealed in the Torah. This Truth penetrates to the very heart of the opposing views, the quarrels and dissention, and creates a new unity on a higher level.

Similarly, when we pray, we inject into the maelstrom of our unquiet soul the Divine Truth which pierces through all the artifice, all the conflict and turmoil inside us. Prayer is reflexive because it brings us face to face with the great harmony at the core of our existence. In other words, tefilla is not an outflow of emotion: it is an influx of Divine energy, a prescription for the soul formulated by the greatest physicians of the soul Chazal the Jewish spiritual masters.

This is not to say that there is no place in Judaism for the outpouring of the soul. Quite the reverse. There are several other words to describe this process, such as siach and techina. Tefilla, however, is the prescription for the soul, and thus, like any medicine, it has to be taken at prescribed times and with exact repeatable doses, and very often, just as with medicine, when we desire it least we need it most.

  • Source: Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch on Bereishet 20:7; thanks to Rabbi Mordechai Perlman

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