Vayetze Sermon


Vayetze Sermon

— From the Rebbe’s Torah —

Begin with joke:

A man is now able to go across the United States in eight hours . . . four hours for flying, and the other four to get to the airport.

This week's parsha is all about being on the road. Traveling can be rough.

Our parsha begins with the words:

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה:

And Yaakov left Be’er Sheva, and he went to Charan.

Yaakov leaves his home, staying away for 22 years. He goes through a lot over there. Then he makes the trip back home, with his father-in-law trying to stop him enroute.

The first stage was when Yaakov left his home in Be’er Sheva and traveled to Charan. He did this at the behest of his father Yitzchak, who told him:

ק֥וּם לֵךְ֙ פַּדֶּ֣נָ֥ה אֲרָ֔ם בֵּ֥יתָה בְתוּאֵ֖ל אֲבִ֣י אִמֶּ֑ךָ וְקַח־לְךָ֤ מִשָּׁם֙ אִשָּׁ֔ה מִבְּנ֥וֹת לָבָ֖ן אֲחִ֥י אִמֶּֽךָ:

Arise, go to Padan aram, to the house of Besuel, your mother's father, and take yourself from there a wife of the daughters of Lavan, your mother's brother.

[Side note: Now, you might be wondering about the name of the place Yaakov was headed to; was it Charan or Padan Aram? The Chizkuni, a commentator from the 13th century, says that they are two names for the same place. The Chasam Sofer, who lived in the first half of the nineteenth century, says that the name of the region to where Yaakov was headed, was Padan Aram, and Charan — his specific destination — was a city within that region.]

Yaakov’s father told him that in Charan he would find a wife and build a family.

Charan comes from the Hebrew word “Charon” — anger; (The Zohar teaches that) this was because Charan was the cause of G-d’s anger. It was an immoral place. Yaakov had much reason to worry leaving the holy confines of the holy land and traveling about the world, to places that could possibly have an improper influence on him. And besides, it would not at all be his comfort zone, not a place a holy man would enjoy. But this is where he would build a family, from whom the Jewish nation would be established, fulfilling G-d’s mission for him; and so, even though it was tough — he went.


There’s another traveler we know. It is actually inside of us. Our Neshomo — our soul has traveled here from very far indeed.

It used to be completely enclosed within holy and serene surroundings; it existed in heaven, spending time with G-d — sitting under the throne of G-d himself. The Neshomo is happy where it is; it would be just fine staying there for eternity. However, G-d tells it one day that it’s time to go down. Down to the coarse universe. A place of physicality, a place of desires, a place of jealousy. A place that obstructs the spectacularly correct and coherent view the neshomo possess up there. The soul is not very happy, to say the least.

Now, to lighten up the mood, I have a joke:

A king put on plainclothes to check out his realm. Wandering the streets in the evening, a kind man asked him if needs somewhere to eat, and the king appreciatively takes him up on his offer. When he finished eating, the king left the table expecting someone to take his plate, as would usually happen.

The 5 year old piped up, “Hey mister! do you think you’re a king or something?!”

Up there the neshomo lived as a “king,” but then it had to leave. It had to hit the road to fulfill G-d’s mission — just like Yaakov.

* * *

The Torah describes Yaakov’s leaving Be’er Sheva:

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע

And Yaakov left Be’er Sheva.

Rashi poses the question: Why the need to enunciate this? The Torah has already described Yaakov’s departure in the last parsha…

The passuk said,

וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ פַּדֶּ֣נָ֥ה אֲרָ֑ם!

“and he went to Padan aram”!

Why the need to describe his departure twice?

Rashi explains that the passuk repeats Yaakov’s departure to emphasize that it was a monumental event:

“For while the righteous man is in the city, he is its beauty, he is its splendor, he is its majesty. When he departs from there, its beauty has departed, its splendor has departed, its majesty has departed.”

A tzaddik’s time in a city graces and enhances it, with his holiness and righteousness; and when he leaves, the city is left bereft. Yaakov’s departure was quite a monumental event, for the "beauty, splendor and majesty" of the city had left together with him.

Now, Rashi’s wording begs clarification. Why does Rashi refer to "beauty, splendor and majesty" having left the city with the tzaddik? Why not “the soul” or “core” of the city?

Wouldn’t such language be a more fitting homage to the Tzaddik’s presence? Why does Rashi use descriptive adjectives while seemingly avoiding a more substantive and defining description?

True, Rashi may be waxing poetic, but that isn’t usually his style. In fact, Rashi endeavours to use the most concise language so that even a five year old could understand him!

So, (the Rebbe explains,) Rashi must be alluding to the “soul” meaning of Yaakov’s travels, which we talked about earlier in this sermon: The descent of the soul to this mundane world.

With his talk of the effects of a tzaddik’s departure, Rashi alludes to the effects of the soul’s departure. When the soul leaves its extravagant setting, in its beautiful perch above, its "beauty, splendor and majesty" dissipate.

But only its "beauty, splendor and majesty".

What does not dissipate? The soul itself.

We may think that the soul loses its touch when touching down to an environment dissimilar to from where it originates. It would seem that it must be too disoriented by the blinding physicality to again live spiritually. It would seem that it must be just holding on by a hair's-breadth.

No. The soul lives on.

This reminds me of a story told by the founder of chassidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov:

Rabbi Eliyahu Ba’al Shem of Worms, a mystic and miracle worker, who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries, once sent a student of his, named Reb Avrohom Moshe, to visit his great-uncle, a wealthy man, who had forsaken Judaism. He entrusted him with a special mezuzah and formations of G-d’s name to use when he got there.

When he arrived, his uncle was happy to see him, and they entered into a talmudic discussion. All the while, the uncle, Moshe, made it clear that he did not believe in G-d…

Rabbi Eliyahu had given his student special intentions to think while saying the words “They will express the remembrance of your abounding goodness, and sing of your righteousness,” in prayer; which would awaken childhood memories in his uncle’s mind. After praying with these intentions, Reb Avrohom Moshe put up the mezuzah his master had entrusted him with.

The sight of the mezuzah made Moshe’s heart melt into tears.

“In the thirty years since I moved out here I have not laid eyes on a mezuzah nor tefillin nor a sefer Torah,” he exclaimed. “When I was three years old, as I now recall, my devout mother, with tears in her eyes, used to pick me up twice every day, as soon as I awoke and before I went to sleep, so that I could kiss the mezuzah on the doorpost.

He continued on with his memories, until he confided that these recollections had ignited in him a desire to be a Jew as he had once been. He felt that his head and arm were burning. He begged his guest to lend him his tallis and tefillin, and prayed the words of Shacharis with the contrite and humble tears of a true penitent.

About a week later, Moshe dismissed his servants, paid them well and gave them gifts. He left his estate with its house and contents for the gentile members of his household, packed up his library, and moved to Belz. There he bought a house near the shul, where he spent the last nine months on earth immersed in prayer and repentance.

The soul is always alive. Even if the world catches up with it — it never gets extinguished!

* * *

Actually, not only does the soul live on in this world, it actually flourishes. It is only and specifically in this world that the soul truly reaches into itself, expresses itself and reaches fulfilment and potential.

After its decent, the aura of extravagance of the king's palace has left it; and now it has a chance to find itself. Now it finally has the independence to explore its facets.

Up there in heaven, the soul is like a spark encompassed in a huge flame — the flame of G-dliness. It is there, but it isn't “present.” One tiny spark isn’t discernible within the innards of a raging flame. Nor does it see itself as an entity unto itself — all it does is bask in G-d’s glory.

But now, sent down on the road, where it is discernible and definable — it can finally express itself.

Only in this world can our souls — enclothed in physical minds — delve into G-d’s infinite wisdom. Only here can our souls express themselves in actions fulfilling G-d’s direct will, transforming physical to spiritual — through our fulfillment of mitzvos. It is here that our souls can love another. It is here that it can love G-d.

Here, our soul can use its body, get down on hands and knees and get things done.

Which reminds me of a joke:

A learned Rabbi brings his car to the mechanic. The mechanic tells his customer to stand by in case he would need some practical, hands-on help. The mechanic gets his hands stuck in the pipes and calls for the Rabbi. Awakened from his thoughts, the Rabbi runs over, places his hands over the mechanic's head and gently whispers “May G-d bless you and protect you…” “What’re you doing?” The mechanic asks. “Just being ‘hands-on!'” the Rabbi replies. 

Here, in this lowly world, you can discern the subtle and holy soul. Here is where it finds and expresses itself. Here it is.


This reminds me of professor Velvel Green of blessed memory; a scientist at NASA. In his book “Curiosity and the desire for truth” he enumerates anecdotes from his professional and personal life, which led him to a greater awareness of G-d, and an understanding of his Judaism. His soul couldn’t have done that up there.

“I was once on a flight,” he recounts, and this was obviously before 9/11, because the door to the flight deck was inadvertently left open.

“I was flying business class,” he continues, “and I could look in to see what the pilot was doing. What was the pilot doing? Going through a checklist doing exactly the same thing he did yesterday, no doubt, checking each thing, one by one, with great diligence. Why doesn't the pilot get bored? Why doesn't he shorten his checklists? Thin it out a little? ‘We don't need to worry about this, no one would ever do that, this is a given, this is too old-fashioned, that belongs to a different time ... They could save a lot of time that way. Presumably, pilots have other things to do, too.

“But they don't. They go through every item, one by one. So as I sat and watched that pilot, I was praying, "Stay with that checklist. All of it." The pilot was on the same flight I was — flying that same plane; for his own sake as well as mine, that pilot was going over the whole checklist, carefully and thoughtfully. No matter how boring, how repetitious, how useless it seemed. Every item, every time. Our lives depended on it.

Professor Green said that this taught him a valuable lesson about Judaism: “Sometimes Judaism can be boring,” he said. Things can seem repetitious. But when you think about the fact that G-d, our creator, mandated these specific actions, you don’t hesitate — your life depends on it, and you are filled with energy to do what you were created for.

Professor Green came to a realization about G-d from observing regular, mundane and physical chains of events. Existing in this world brought him to a higher place, and his soul flourished.


(Getting back to our question —) this is why Rashi does not say that the “core” or “soul” has been lost, when the soul descends. No. Only the aura — the "beauty, splendor and majesty” has been lost. We aren’t in the king’s palace anymore. But the soul’s journey has only just begun.

Just as Yaakov established himself specifically in the city of “G-d’s anger,” we too realize ourselves this far-off, mundane world.

Yes, we’re on the road... But here we are!

Last Week's Sermon


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