The Power of an Over 3600 Year-Old Tremble

A human shudder is mentioned three times in the Torah (and several more times in Tanach):

The first – in this week’s Torah portion: Isaac shuddered a great, very great, shudder when Esau approached Isaac to receive the blessing that Jacob had already “stolen” (Genesis 27:33).

The tribes shuddered when they discovered the money planted in their sacks (Genesis 42:28). “What is this that G-d is doing to us?” they asked with sinking hearts as they realized that they were being held accountable for the blood of their brother Joseph whom they sold into slavery.

At Sinai – the people in the camp shuddered (Exodus 19:16). Indeed, the entire mountain shuddered violently (19:18).

The sages actually connect these three shudders: According to Rabbi Judah (Zohar I 144b) Jacob’s anguish over the loss of Joseph was a punishment for causing his father Isaac to shudder.

The Midrash (Ohr Ha’afeilah in manuscript) says that due to Isaac’s shudder his children shuddered at Sinai.

What connection is there between these three events?

Every shudder reflects a serious disturbance. When we become aware that things are not aligned we shudder.

Our universe in general and each person individually, is dichotomous in nature – comprised of matter and spirit, body and soul – two forces driven in opposite directions. The battle between matter and spirit creates serious turbulence, which lies at the root of all existential loneliness and despair – more than enough reason to shudder.

However this dissonance is not always apparent.

The story of Jacob and Esau reflects the struggle of life itself resulting from the tension between matter and spirit. The twin brothers Jacob and Esau embody two personalities and two nations that are odds with each other from their moment of conception (in Rebecca’s womb): “Two nations are in your womb. Two governments will separate from inside you. The upper hand will go from one nation to the other.”

Esau and Jacob represent two forces in each of our lives and in the world as a whole: Esau, the “skilled hunter, a man of the field,” symbolizes the body, the material world, whose untamed elements need to be conquered. Jacob, the “wholesome man, who dwells in the tents,” embodies the soul, the spiritual world. Initially these two worlds do not co-exist. Matter and spirit are at war with each other. “When one rises the other falls.”

In mystical terms the struggle between Jacob and Esau represents the process called Avodat habirurim: Everything in our material existence contains Divine “sparks,” i.e. spiritual energy, and we are charged with the mission to extricate, redeem and elevate these sparks, to uncover the spiritual opportunity embedded in every experience, and thereby refine the material universe and transform it into its true purpose: a vehicle for spiritual expression.

Originally, Esau was to be Jacob’s partner in the endeavor to redeem the Divine “sparks.” Esau’s warrior was meant to tame the crass elements of materialism and shaping them into vehicles of the sublime. But the material Esau first needs the spiritual Jacob for direction and focus. To gain the material blessings that Isaac had designated for Esau, Jacob garbs himself in Esau’s clothes, to redeem the powerful energy within matter.

After Jacob camouflaged as Esau receives Isaac’s blessings, Esau returns from his hunt in the field and presents himself before his father Isaac. As Esau enters Isaac’s presence, Isaac senses the profound dissonance between matter and spirit, between Esau and Jacob. And he shudders violently: Something is wrong, terribly wrong.

What exactly caused Isaac to be seized with such a violent shudder?

One opinion is that Isaac shuddered when he realized that Esau was not who Isaac thought he was: Isaac “saw Gehennom [hell] open beneath him” (Rashi – from Tanchuma Brocho 1. Zohar ibid). According to this opinion, Jacob was not punished for this shudder (see Ohr HaChama Zohar ibid). A second opinion is that Jacob was also the cause of his shudder. So though G-d agreed that Jacob should receive the blessings, but because he caused his father such pain (i.e. he made him aware of the deep discord), Jacob would later be affected in turn with the loss of Joseph.

Joseph being sold by his brothers was another manifestation of the schism between matter and spirit.

And finally, Isaac’s shudder caused the Jewish people to shudder as they stood at Sinai. The Psalmist writes: “From heaven You caused sentence to be heard, the earth feared and was still” (Psalms 76:9). Explains the Talmud (Shabbas 88a), that until Sinai “the earth feared” because the universe’s material existence was tenuous without its connection to its spiritual purpose. When this connection was established at Sinai the earth “was still.”

It was therefore quite appropriate that standing before Sinai “the people in the camp – as well as the mountain – shuddered.” [Perhaps the mountain “shuddered violently” because the people were after all children of Jacob, and thus not quite distant from their spiritual calling. By contrast, the mountain was very much part of the material “earth” which stood in fear.]

Yet, even after the stillness affected by Sinai the battle rages on, but now we are armed with the formal tools to bridge Esau’s matter with Jacob’s spirit.

Over 3600 years ago our grandfather Isaac shuddered a violent shudder. He shuddered for the misalignment of the universe. He shuddered for every painful experience that would take place over the ages. He shuddered when he saw the terrible consequences of the battles between Esau and Jacob – the wars that would be waged between these two global powers, two forces in history – Rome and Jerusalem.

He shuddered as he realized how difficult, how enormously painful the struggle would be throughout history between the forces of matter and the forces of spirit.

His shudder continued to reverberate throughout the eons.

But the shudder of a Tzaddik is not mere fear. It absorbs some of the shock and pain – making it easier for us to weave our way through the challenges.

And weave we did. Through all the havoc, persecutions and expulsions, we stand today at the threshold of a new world: A world which will finally be “still” – at peace with itself, with its neighbors, and above all – with its Divine purpose.

Some shudders have such power.

* * *

Question: Please share any examples of how a tremble, a shudder in life has yielded something powerful.


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steven bell
17 years ago

When my wife was in the final stages of labor and faltering I begin to breath with her and she regained her rhythm…when I heard my first born had meningitis I became a born again Jew.

13 years ago

I wonder, and perhaps shudder, at the
confrontational and bellicose language that we use regarding the relationship of the physical and the spiritual.

They are not contrary to each other, but complementary, except that they show up differently in our descriptions of them. The fact is that in physics, matter is condensed energy, which when broken down becomes energy again. It can be described as a dance rather than a battle.

It occurs to me that this nomenclature stems from our projections unto inanimate objects a desire to survive that we have, but which they dont have. The two domains are actually harmonious, each giving itself up to the other willingly. The only place the perception of conflict occurs is in ourselves.

Are we perpetuating disharmony and conflict in the world by retaining language that is outmoded? Is our description of the confrontational interplay between spirituality and physicality actually producing more confrontation?

13 years ago

….to uncover the spiritual opportunity embedded in every experience….THANK YOU. Yes, this is what we are here to do. You are a wonderful teacher, Rabbi. It is the way you can bring the teachings into a day-to-day awareness.

13 years ago

This was your best article, I think.
Or maybe the subject just resonates deeply.
Lome can become a loom, weaving peace, when each nationality recognizes its harmony with the Jewish Nation & with creation. When Jews realize their own worth and uniqueness, they bring the Redemption of mankind.

Yacenty Domanski
13 years ago

This is very significient in the next year 2011, called Tisha BAv, as mark of birth of Messiah. When all human being will shrudder.

13 years ago

thank you. most interesting.
i wish i could write so well.

13 years ago

I am shuddering when I notice people who are adult age use imitating techniques in actions, gestures or dress for selfish reasons of personal gain. Or they might use pairing two activities to make a personal gain in their own life. People capitalize on the errors of others instead of letting self correction happen or helping an individual make their own good choices.
Adults are misusing learning theory techniques from Behavior Modification Theories for their own personal advantage in everyday life. Imitating actions is a powerful tool of learning for babies to learn to talk or walk or for teaching the handicapped. When adults abuse this imitating technique, they can misuse it to undermind the personal experiences of another person.
I shudder when I think that we are destroying the good use of these imitating techniques and we are destroying good relations between people by this misuse. We are fantasizing, pretending about each other using magical thinking to get ahead instead of striving for the mystery of faith and chosing ones own individual life.
But the good of this abuse is that we will each end up destroying each other or parts of each other and then learn not to imitate anymore thus leaving each person with their own direct relationship to Hashem . Not being able to abuse a person for imaginary individual growth, they will necessarily go to the invisible being. The people who stand by the mystery and the rules of an individual life will hold the line on this abuse from others. Chosing their human rights as a boundry. The others will either finally turn from abusing to make a good choice and chose their own life. Or this will harm and destroy the struggling good person in the process. Or innocent people get hurt. There is always a recipient for misbehavior of the general world of human beings.
The general public could minimize the damage if each person learns how to focus on encouraging people to struggle to chose their own life.

13 years ago

I dont agree at all about your interpretation of THE SHUDDER.

Have you ever shuddered and felt what they are referring to? A shudder can be a GREAT thing.

I have a few times and EVERY single time it was when I was receiving information that would change my life in a very important and good way. MY whole body shuddered from my toes to my head. The shudder tells me something really good is afoot! I know a big change just blew in. Something providential.

Greg Federbush
13 years ago

My mother, who is a survivor of Auschwitz, suggested that I move my wife and my three children out of Los Angeles in order to escape THE BIG ONE.

I took her words seriously and ventured this weekend to a more still place on a mountain in Nevada to check it out.

On the way home yesterday, I put in a tape I received from Rabbi Jacobsen years ago, but had never listened to. It was about reincarnation and transmigration of souls.

His explanation allowed me to experience the visualization of rising above my life and attempting to see it as a whole. (Like a bird looking down on the river of life and seeing it all.) From up here I can also see the entire life-cycle of the Jewish people. The suffering, the pain, the happiness and the joy…a tornadic whirlpool of life and Gods plan.

At the eye of the storm, here and now, the shudder is obvious. But the palpability of the stillness is in the air.

Whether we stay here in L.A. or venture out to Nevada permanently is undecided. But the forecast is for sunny skies. Thanks, Simon!

Zalman Weinberg
13 years ago

I was in my living room with my padding and golf simulator and a 48 degree wedge in hand looking at 110 yards to the pin. Yet, my mind was focused on anger, resignation and despair as I had just moved out of my home because the woman I had loved with all my heart and soul for the past 16 years had recently told me she no longer to be that woman…that all she wanted was to be separated and divorced. So, I stood there over my titleist with tears of confusion welling up in my eyes, not understanding why Hashem would have such a thing happen to me,and angry that He would do this. As a secular jew most of my life my relationship with G-d was not profound but perfunctory.
So, thre I am pitching wedge in hand, my 8 year old and 11 years old daughters behind me watching tv and eating mac and cheese, tears, fears, and cynicism exuded from every pore…and I took a perfect backswing and complete follow through…and the clubhead hit the overhead fan and glass globe that covered the light bulb sending glass flying everywhere behind me…in the direction of my darling, scrumptious, and loving daughters! Pieces whizzed by their heads and bodies as they screamed. I ran over, panicky, but BH;, not a piece had touched them. I shuddered with the realization that Hashem WAS with me, protecting all that I cherished, and had heard my cry and pleas. I kissed my daughters, hugged them, and was in shule the following Shabbat…and two years later, have grown from strength to strength, live a completely kosher and Torah/mitzvot life, and every now and then think of the moment when the Divine was in my presence such that we connected…and how that shudder was not me, but rather, Him.

3 years ago

That is beautiful and on a human level also heart wrenching. Beautiful beautiful outcome

7 years ago

Last night i deamnt that I have to go to Aleppo. I am with one Jew, and all the rest are Arabs. They’re friendly, but deep inside I know i have to be on guard and prepared, in case one the de Arabs attacked me. But i have another concern: Aleppo must be one of the mostrar sangre pus places on Earth, permanently bombarded by Russians, Americans, pro-Assad Syrians, etc. In the dream i feel a deep fear – it remaches my bones. The fear is so great, that I understand I must strengthening my bond to Hashem much much much more than what it is now. I understand that the only way to endure such fear, the only way to gather the courage for coping with such danger – is becomming close enough to Hashem, so that I can feel and internaluze His Strength, Courage and His Power. In reality, I’m starting a new phase in
My professional Life: new dificult challenges are eso ring around the corner(That’s the meaning of Aleppo). The dream is telling me that the only way to endure and survive the dangers involved -is with dvekut= attaching my self closer to God.

Frida Mandelblum
5 years ago

Breath taking!
Every Thursday I anxiously wait fir your Parasha’s thoughts and this one has touched me in many ways! In my life’s journey to transcend – Teshuva-
Many thanks !

3 years ago

Baruch Hashem this explanation encourages us to look deeper into Jacob and Esau (human and spiritual) experiences. This relationship now more than ever can finally be on the way for all of us to return to a healthy and meaningful life.

The Meaningful Life Center