Desire, the most powerful human faculty, lies at the very root of the human being. The Ramchal, Rav Chaim Volozhin, and other Jewish thinkers explain that what you want, is who you are. And yet, we seem to have conflicting wants. On the one hand, we each have a deep yearning to transcend our limitations, to expand beyond our current state, to connect to something infinite, spiritual, beyond this world. Yet, at the same time, human beings have a deep craving for the most mundane, physical, and transient pleasures. Which of these is our true desire, our true ratzon?
Perhaps, at root, we are purely spiritual, and our pull towards earthly things is simply a corruption of our true nature.
Or maybe we are simply physical beings, and our pull towards physicality is a reflection of our limited nature.
But perhaps we are more than either of these drives; maybe our deepest root, our deepest desire, is connected to both the spiritual and the physical. This leads us to an important question: What is the meaning and purpose of our desire for physicality, and how does it relate to our drive for spirituality?
When Yaakov reunites with Esav at the beginning of Parshas Vayishlach, he proclaims: “Im Lavan garti – with Lavan I have lived” (Bereishis 32:5). Rashi explains this statement to mean that Yaakov maintained all of his learning and mitzvah observance while living in Lavan’s household. Lavan was a crooked, manipulative cheat, and living in his household was a stark departure from the honesty and righteousness of Yitzchak’s household, thus posing a potential challenge to Yaakov’s spiritual vitality. Therefore, it was a tremendous accomplishment for Yaakov to maintain his spiritual growth while living in Lavan’s house for 20 years. How did he accomplish such a feat?
If we trace our way back to Yaakov’s journey from his parents’ home, we’ll recall that he spent fourteen years learning in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever between leaving his parents’ home and arriving at Lavan’s domain (Rashi – Bereishis 28:11). Why was this time necessary? Yaakov had spent his entire life surrounded by the Torah and values of Yitzchak and Avraham. Shouldn’t this have been enough to prepare him for the trials and tribulations that he would face in the house of Lavan? What did Shem and Ever offer that Yaakov had not already received from Avraham and Yitzchak?
Avraham’s Gift to the World
In order to understand this, let us take a step back and understand Avraham’s worldview and his unique approach to spirituality. If someone were to ask you, “what is Avraham famous for?” your immediate response would likely be “monotheism.” Many assume that Avraham taught the world of Hashem’s existence. However, this cannot be the case. Adam clearly knew that Hashem existed, and so did Noach, who lived just a couple generations before Avraham. Even if you want to say that people forgot in the time between Noach and Avraham, we know this is not true: Shem and Ever were both alive before Avraham and were teaching Torah. If Avraham was not the first to teach of Hashem’s existence, what did he introduce to the world?
Some suggest that while Shem and Ever learned Torah, they did so in isolation, removed from society. Thus, Avraham was the first to openly teach Hashem’s existence to the world. In a sense, Avraham was the first “Ba’al Kiruv,” the first to bring Torah to the masses. While this may be true, and is indicative of Avraham’s nature, there is another layer to this profound topic. In order to understand Avraham’s unique worldview, we have to take a step back and study different spiritual perspectives.
Most spiritual schools of thought are focused wholly on the spiritual; they view the physical world as lowly and dangerous. They therefore claim that the physical should be avoided to the greatest extent possible. In order to live a spiritual life, one must escape the physical, and completely reject their physical nature. Therefore, spiritual systems such as Buddhism prescribe meditation, abstinence, and suppression of any hint of physical desire. In such a system, the ideal is to sit isolated on a mountaintop and meditate on our navel.
Historically, this was the spiritual system of Shem and Ever. They understood the dangers of the physical world – they witnessed the evil and destruction of both the Dor Ha’Mabul and Dor Ha’Flagah, and decided that in order to maintain their spirituality, they had to remove themselves from the physical, lowly world.
Avraham, however, introduced a novel, idealistic approach to life. He understood that while the physical can be dangerous if misused, the ideal is not to transcend the physical, but to use the physical to reflect something higher. In other words, he introduced the ideal Jewish spiritual system.
Think, how many mitzvos are commandments of the mind? Incredibly few! You can count them on your hands: Believe in Hashem, love Hashem, be in awe of Hashem, don’t be jealous, and just a few others. The overwhelming majority of mitzvos are physical actions that connect you to the spiritual Source, Hashem. The act is physical, while the intentions and mindset must be infused within it. We eat matzah, shake a lulav, blow shofar, and wear tefillin; all actions, all physical. We don’t believe in transcending the physical, we want to use the physical to connect to the transcendent.
This is because the physical world is deeply connected to the spiritual world. Every physical action affects the spiritual realm, creating cosmic ripple effects. This can be compared to when one plays a piano. When a piano key is pressed, a hammer inside the piano strikes the string below, generating the musical sound. The key itself does not create the musical note; it causes a chain reaction, and the sound comes from a different – albeit connected – location.
The same is true of the physical world. Every action creates a corresponding reaction in the spiritual world. In essence, our physical world is like an upside-down puppet show. When a puppeteer pulls the strings from above, he causes the puppets to act down below. When we do physical actions in the physical world, we create cosmic change in the spiritual realm above.
Shem and Ever
We can now understand what Yaakov gained from learning with Shem and Ever. While Avraham represented a spirituality deeply connected to the physical world, Shem and Ever represented a spirituality that transcends this world, a spirituality that Yaakov needed to connect to before continuing on his journey. Yaakov was about to enter a spiritually hostile environment, Lavan’s domain, an environment contradicting everything Yaakov knew and stood for. While Yaakov stood for truth, Lavan was a man of deceit, one whose speech did not reveal any higher inner truth. Just as Lavan’s words were disconnected from any higher truth, Lavan served to disconnect the physical from the spiritual. In order to protect himself and his spiritual growth during this phase, Yaakov needed to learn from those who had succeeded in such hostile conditions. Shem and Ever experienced the evils of both the Dor Ha’Mabul and the Dor Ha’Flagah, and had built a system of learning that protected themselves from such challenges, a Torah which was disconnected from the challenges of the physical world. While Yaakov had already embraced Avraham’s Torah and ideology, he also needed some time with Shem and Ever in order to succeed in the next stage of his journey. Each provided something essential to Yaakov’s development.
The Idealism of Yaakov
Yaakov was only able to succeed in his mission because he desired it with every fiber of his being. Rashi (Bereishis 28:11) quotes the midrash saying that not once during his entire fourteen years of learning in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever did Yaakov go to bed. Every night, he would fall asleep at his seat, immersed in Torah and spiritual growth. Yaakov wanted this, he lived this, he became this. He was able to build the ultimate synthesis, fully transcending the physical world – like Shem and Ever – and yet connecting the transcendent to the physical – like Avraham. He lived a life of complete harmony (tiferes). Both Avraham and the house of Shem and Ever were specialists in their form of spirituality; Yaakov was the ultimate harmony.