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The Chase

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And Jacob sent word and summoned Rachel and Leah to the field where his flock was. And he said to them: “…You know that with all my power I have served your father. And your father has deceived me, and changed my wages tens of times; but G-d did not allow him to hurt me…  And G-d delivered the livestock of your father and gave it to me…
“And an angel of G-d said to me in a dream: ‘… Now arise, go out of this land, and return to the land of your birth…’ ”
And Rachel and Leah answered and said to him: “Is there still a portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not treated by him as strangers? … For all the wealth which G-d has delivered from our father, it is ours, and our children’s. Now then, whatever G-d says to you, do.”
And Jacob rose up, and set his sons and his wives on the camels. And he led away all his cattle, and all his goods which he had acquired, the possessions of his purchase, which he had acquired in Paddan-Aram, to go to Isaac his father in the land of Canaan…
And it was told to Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled.  And he took his kinsmen with him, and pursued after him a seven days’ journey; and they overtook him at Mount Gil’ad….
And Jacob was angry and strove with Laban…  And he said: “What is my crime and what is my sin, that you have so hotly pursued me?!
“…Twenty years I have been in your employ. Your ewes and your she-goats never lost their young; never have I eaten the rams of your flock… In the day drought consumed me, and the frost at night; and my sleep departed from my eyes…”
And Laban said: “…Come, let us make a covenant, I and you; and let it be as a witness between myself and you.” … And they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there upon the heap… And Laban said to Jacob: “…This heap be witness, and this monument be witness, that I will not cross this heap to you, and you will not cross this heap and monument to me, for harm…” And they spent the night on the hill.
And Laban rose in the morning… and he returned to his place.  And Jacob went on his way.

Genesis 31:4-32:2

Delivering Sparks

Why does a man of 63, who has spent his entire life in the “tents of study” in pursuit of wisdom and closeness to G-d, leave the spiritual oasis of Be’er-Shevah, home of Abraham and Isaac, and go to Charan in Paddan-Aram, the world’s capital of idolatry and deceit, to spend 20 years as a shepherd in the employ of Laban the Deceiver?

He is hunting sparks.

For each and every creation, no matter how material and mundane, has at its heart a “spark of holiness.” A spark that embodies G-d’s desire that it exist and its function within His overall purpose for creation. A spark that is the original instrument of its creation and that remains nestled within it to continuously supply it with being and life.  A spark of holiness that constitutes its “soul” – its spiritual content and design. Submerged in the physical reality, these holy sparks are virtual prisoners in their material embodiments. For the physical world, with its illusion of self-sufficiency and arbitrariness, suppresses all but the faintest glimmer of holiness and purposefulness of being.

The soul of man descends into the trappings and trials of physical life in order to reclaim these sparks. By enclothing itself within a physical body that will eat, wear clothes, inhabit a home and otherwise make use of the objects and forces of physical existence, the soul can redeem the sparks of holiness they incorporate. For when man utilizes something, directly or indirectly, to serve the Creator, he penetrates its shell of mundanity, revealing and realizing its Divine essence and purpose.

“The deeds of the fathers are signposts for the children.”[1] The story of Jacob’s journey to Charan is the story of life itself: the soul, too, leaves behind a spiritual and G-dly existence to preoccupy itself with material needs, to become a shepherd and entrepreneur in the Charans of the world.[2] The soul, too, must stoop to deal with the crassness, the hostility and the deceptions of an alien employer. It must struggle to extract the sparks of holiness from their mundane husks, to deliver[3] the flocks of Laban into the domain of Jacob.

Unfinished Business

Among the “signposts” in Jacob’s journey is the rather strange closing chapter in his dealings with Laban. Jacob’s mission in Charan seems complete. As he tells Rachel and Leah, Laban’s livestock has been delivered to him – the material resources of this alien land have been sublimated, their sparks of holiness redeemed through Jacob’s exploitation of them for good and G-dly ends; indeed, the Almighty has communicated to him that it is time he came home. They, too, sense that all opportunities in Charan have been utilized, that there no longer remains “a portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house.” So he “led away all his cattle, and all his goods which he had acquired, the possessions of his purchase, which he had acquired in Paddan-Aram, to go to… the land of Canaan.”

But Laban pursues Jacob, and they have a final confrontation on Mount Gil’ad. Reconciled, they break bread together and camp for the night. Then, each goes his own way, having sealed a non-aggression pact between them, attested to by a pile of stones which marks their respective domains.[4]

Obviously, there was still some unfinished business between them, some lingering sparks still languishing in Laban’s camp. In the words of Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch: “For Jacob had left behind Torah letters[5] which he had not yet extracted from Laban. This is why Laban pursued him, to give him the letters which remain with him – an entire chapter was added to the Torah by these letters.”[6]

In other words, there are two types of “sparks” that are redeemed through a person’s efforts: (a) Those which he consciously pursues, having recognized the potential for sanctity and goodness in an object or event in his life. (b) Those which pursue him: opportunities which he would never have exploited on his own, as they represent potentials so lofty that they cannot be identified and developed by his humanly finite perception and prowess. So his redemption of these sparks can only come about unwittingly, when, by Divine Providence, his involvement with them is forced upon him by circumstances beyond his control.

The Absent-Minded Farmer

The mitzvos of the Torah are the most obvious way in which we redeem the sparks of holiness invested within the material world. When a physical object or resource is used to carry out a Divine command (the leather of the teffilin, wood used to build a sukah, the coin given to charity) its G-dly essence and raison d’etre have been realized: a spark has been delivered from its corporeal imprisonment.

The overwhelming majority of mitzvos are conscious efforts on our part to fulfill G-d’s will; indeed, unless there is an “intention” (kavanah) to do so, the deed would not qualify as a mitzvah.[7] However, there is also the rare mitzvah which can only be observed accidentally. For example, the Torah commands: “When you reap your harvest in your field, and you forget a sheaf in the field – you shall not go back to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan and for the widow.”[8] Of course, a person can always observe the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity) by giving to the poor; but the particular mitzvah of shikcha (“forgetting”) can only be achieved against his conscious desire![9] For these are mitzvos which realize a Divine potential so sublime and subtle that it cannot be accessed and dealt with by any conscious human effort.

The same is true of the more indirect ways in which we redeem these holy sparks. For our sublimation of the material is not limited to our actual performance of mitzvos; indeed, our every physical act can be directed to achieve this end, when incorporated into one’s service of the Almighty. For example, every time we eat, we can do so with the intention to serve the Almighty with the energy derived from our food; the sparks of holiness contained within this food are thus redeemed and unified with their source, despite the fact that this act of eating did constitute a mitzvah (i.e. a direct fulfillment of a Divine command).[10] In this and similar ways, every moment and resource of a person’s life can be transformed into an act of deliverance and sublimation.

Here, too, our lives are divided into “Charan” periods and “Mount Gil’ad” events. On the one hand, there are our conscious and focused efforts: opportunities are recognized, goals defined, endeavors planned and achieved. But then there are the “accidents” of life: situations we never desired and even sought to avoid, encounters which pursue us even as we flee from them. These may aggravate and exasperate us (“What more do you want of me?! Isn’t twenty years of scorching days and freezing nights enough?”), but we must never dismiss them and fail to extract the kernel of good which certainly lies buried within them. Indeed, they contain the most elusive, and most rewarding, achievements of our lives.

Based on the talks of the Rebbe, winter of 1963-4.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.


[1] Nachmanides’ commentary on Gen. 12:6.

[2]  See Or HaChaim commentary (by Rabbi Chaim Iban Attar, 1696-1742) on Gen. 28:14.

[3]  Thus the verb hatzolo, which means “save,” “redeem” and “deliver,” is repeatedly used by the Torah to describe Jacob’s success in exacting a profit from Laban’s flocks (Gen. 31:9 & 16).  The same word is used in connection with the “great riches” with which the Jews left Egypt, “leaving it as a silo emptied of its grain, as a pond emptied of its fish” – representing the sparks of holiness whose redemption was the purpose of their descent into Egyptian exile (Ex. 12:36; see Gen. 15:14 and Talmud, Brachos 9a-b).

[4]  We find a similar phenomenon in the prohibition for a Jew to live in Egypt (Deut. 17:16): having been utterly “emptied” of its sparks, there is no longer anything to be accomplished through one’s involvement with the material resources in that corner of the world.

[5]  The sparks of holiness are referred to in the teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidism as “letters” since it is the “letters” of the Divine speech (e.g. “And G-d said: ‘Let there be light!’ And there was light”) which create and sustain each created entity that constitute its soul and essence.

[6]  Quoted by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch in Ohr Hatorah vol V pg 869a.

[7]  Talmud, Brachos 13a.  There are even certain mitzvos whose functions, as defined by the Torah, is to evoke a certain consciousness in the mind of its performer.  For example: “You shall dwell in sukot (booths) for seven days… so that your generation shall know that I settled the children of Israel in sukot, when I took them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:42-43).

[8]  Deut. 24:19.

[9]  A similar case is the mitzvah of shiluach hakain (“dispatching [the mother from] the nest”): “If you chance upon a bird’s nest in the way… and the mother bird is sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother bird together with the young. Send off the mother, and the young you may take for yourself…” (Deut. 22:6-7). Although the actual deed of this mitzvah is consciously performed, the opportunity for its observance cannot be contrived: only if one chances upon such a nest does the mitzvah of shiluach hakain apply.

[10] As is the case when one eats matzoh at the Passover seder; eats in the sukah on the festival of Sukot; pleasures the Shabbos with food and drink, etc.

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