Laban and Esau: Two Stages of Development
To fight and win any battle one needs training and resources. If life is a battle, when do we get trained and how do we build our arsenal?
This is the theme of our weekly Torah portion, as explained in the continuing Hemshech Samech Vov discourses.
Last week’s article discussed how Jacob’s life story related in these week’s Torah portions is actually the story of our own lives.
The battle between Jacob and Esau reflects the struggle of life resulting from the tension between matter and spirit. Esau the warrior represents the body, the material world, whose untamed elements need to be conquered. Jacob the wholesome scholar symbolizes the soul, the spiritual world. Initially these two worlds clash and fight for control.
In mystical terms the struggle between Jacob and Esau represents the process called Avodat ha’Birurim. 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.
This conflict takes on many shapes: The struggle between selfish goals and the greater good; between the demands at work and home life; between survival and transcendence; between instant gratification and long term objectives. In our own psyches we often struggle with a fractured past and the wish to build a healthy life. How much time do we spend on our fears and insecurities, battling demons (real or imagined), when what we really want is the peace and calm to pursue higher aspirations?
Yet, this battle, whatever shape it takes on in your life, is precisely the purpose of existence: To redeem the spiritual opportunities (“sparks”) that lie within these struggles. And the stronger the resistance, the more powerful is the energy generated. Every moment of our lives, every act and interaction poses for us the challenge: Who will triumph – the selfish forces of matter or the selfless forces of spirit?
But what resources do we have at our disposal to wage our wars? How can we prepare to fight them? Armies spend years training, stocking supplies, developing strategies and building resources in preparation for a battle that one day may be fought. What equivalent training do we receive to face combat in our own lives?
Last week’s Torah chapter laid the ground for the overall conflict. The body and soul (Esau and Jacob) are initially adversaries; each has their unique strengths. Indeed, the body and material life has enormous power that lifts the soul to unprecedented heights. However, the soul must harness this power. Hence, Isaac’s blessings pass on to the body (Esau) via the soul (Jacob), thereby empowering the soul in its work of refining and elevating the sparks within matter.
Now that Jacob is empowered with the blessings why then does he not proceed with his work to reconcile and refine Esau, and instead escapes to his uncle Laban in Charan, and only after 22 years does he return to face Esau?
The delay is in order to allow the soul (Jacob) to reinforce itself and develop the necessary tools to face the challenges ahead.
And this is the story of this week’s portion: How Jacob – and each of us – trains and builds the strength to then go fight the primary and harsher battle with the heart of the material world (Esau).
After receiving blessings and instructions from Isaac and Rebecca to go to Charan, Jacob sets out on his way. “Jacob leaves Beer Sheba and goes toward Charan,” where Jacob works for two decades in the employ of his conniving uncle, Laban, in the midst of a corrupt and debased society. Throughout it all, Jacob remained true to G-d and man, serving Laban honestly, even as the latter repeatedly swindled him, scrupulously observing all 613 commandments of the Torah and retaining all that he had learned in his years of study. He even prospered materially, amassing considerable wealth. In Charan, Jacob also married and fathered eleven of the twelve sons who were to yield the twelve tribes of Israel.
But this stage is not devoid of battle. As in any good training, real battles, albeit smaller ones, must be fought (or at least simulated) in order to prepare for the larger battles. Laban was deceitful and difficult. And indeed, Jacob is afraid of going there, and prays that G-d be with him and protect him from harm. G-d promises Jacob to be with him and that he will return intact and complete to his father’s home back in Israel.
Jacob’s journey to Charan is the story of every soul’s descent to earth. At the outset the soul is ordered and empowered to descend into the difficult material world (“Charan” – a place of wrath). And then the actual descent begins.
But the descent itself is in stages. In the early, formative part of our lives we go through the education process and learn the “ropes” of survival. Living at home and being provided for protects us from the world at large. At this stage we also encounter battles, but they can hardly be compared to the harsh realities we face once we leave home and school and enter the “real” world and selfish marketplace.
Then comes stage two: Once we have built up our strength and resources and established a family and secure home – a solid ground base – then we are ready to enter combat with the difficult “Esau” based warrior-like world.
In Kabbalistic and Chassidic terms these are two stages in the “Avodat Ha’Birurim” process. First you refine the lesser or more subtle forms of impurities. What is then left spills over to the next stage of refinement in which you refine the coarser elements.
The first stage in the home of Laban consists of the refinement of the sparks in the world of Tikkun – in the domain of goodness and holiness, which is achieved primarily through Torah and Mitzvot. This was the primary work of Jacob in Charan, tending to the sheep, which symbolizes the three dimensions of Akudim, Nekudim and Verudim (see Cosmic Sheep).
The next stage facing Esau entails the refinement of the chaotic world of Tohu, whose fallen “broken shards” are embedded in the material universe. This stage requires us to battle the forces of darkness and evil to uncover the “sparks,” refine and elevate them. This work is achieved primarily through Teshuvah, which has the power to transform the darkest places.
And though the “birur” (refinement) of Esau is far more difficult than the “birur” of Laban, it has the power to reach the “hidden essence of the supra-conscious,” as discussed in the previous article, and infuse even the work of holiness with unprecedented dimensions.
Macrocosm microcosm. Just as our lives are divided into these two stages, we also have them both each day of our lives. Upon awakening each morning the first thing we need to do is reinforce our souls through prayer and study before taking on the challenges of the workplace. Then we can enter the coarse world and sensitize it, through our mitzvot – with virtue, integrity and ethics.
Practically speaking, parents must ask themselves: “Am I doing everything possible to provide for my children stage one – a secure and nurturing environment filled with holiness – to prepare my children to face the harsh world?”
As children we must ask ourselves whether we were adequately trained to go to battle; whether we have the necessary resources and tools. If the answer is no – which sadly is the situation may people are in today, growing up in families that did not provide the basic training, or dysfunctional homes or worse – do not despair. You always have the ability to begin at whatever stage you are in your life. True, it’s much easier do in the natural order discussed, via a healthy childhood, but even under other circumstances, there are methods to compensate for a lack of proper training. (We can learn the lesson from Rabbi Akiva who at age 40 began his studies, after seeing the effect that a persistent drop of water can have on a stone, only to become the greatest Talmudic scholar of his times – upon whom is based the entire Talmud).
One of the ways is to begin now. Whatever age you are, incorporate into your life the two elements of the “refinement” process: 1) Designate time each day for prayer and study to build up the “kedusha”-sanctity in your life. And if you lacked this in your youth, compensate now by adding a bit more. Then 2) when you enter the material world be aware that you are there not just to “make a living” but to transform your corner of the world into a Divine home, by uncovering the “sparks” in your domain and utilizing your skills and opportunities for a greater cause than just your own survival.
Always remember: Your success in battle will be only as good as you prepare for it. Once in battle you cannot begin proper battle training. Once you are engaged in conflict, you simply don’t have the time and energy, and above all, can’t afford to step back and prepare. At that point you have no choice but to fight, whether you are ready or not, equipped or not.
What is most vital is to create a peaceful oasis – a space, a moment, a corner, in which you have the ability to stock up, gather strength and reinforce yourself before you face the harsh realities around us.
Each one of us was given the power, by virtue of your soul, to find inner peace and create an environment – a home – for your soul, your family and loved ones. And this also serves as a solid base and station from which you can engage the often difficult world around us, and do what it takes to transform it and reveal its inherent unity and Divinity.