Man’s Dual Existence

Lessons from the life of Yaakov

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Fl


Parents, who were having a difficult time finding a Shidduch for their child, once asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a Bracha so that they may find a proper and quick match.

The Rebbe gave them a hearty Bracha and then quickly added that they should get in touch with a resourceful, Shaddchan (matchmaker) the sooner the better. 

We all know that man is a complex creature; inherently schizophrenic. We don’t need to take a course in psychology to be cognizant of man’s inner discord. Regardless of psychological reasons and explanations, man’s natural tug-and-pull is an everyday fact of life.

According to Judaism, as explained in Chassidic literature, the cause of our polygonal drives can be traced back to our unique composition of body and soul.

This is to say that at our very core we are not a single unified existence, but rather a composition of two exceedingly diverse and diametrical entities. Our body, with all its wants and desires, pulls us in the direction of material and hedonistic pursuits, while our soul beckons us toward higher spiritual exploration and existence.

Neither is the affect of the body-soul dissonance limited to behavioral choices and decisions; it rather impacts our entire attitude and perception of life and reality itself.

The rational animal instinct dictates that we view life as a series of secular events; stemming from a natural order and power, whilst the soul insists that life be perceived as the workings of a higher supra natural force.

So, what are we to do? Do we ignore our physical dimension and listen to our Divine soul, or do we shun our Divine soul and live our lives in accordance with our bodily dictates and discernments? The answer is no to both.

As humans we have the fine distinction and responsibility of fusing the two conflicting instinctive perceptions of existence and distilling them into a single balanced blend. While we are certainly not meant to follow the lead of the animal spirit; to view life as a mere string of coincidences and the world as a self sustaining organism, we are likewise not meant to deny the reality of the world and its physical characteristics either.

Practically speaking, what this means is that the Torah way for man to approach life is not to ignore the rules and consequences of nature and its physical order, if that is even possible, but neither are we meant to become subordinate to it. We are expected to live within the world and at the same time remain above it.

We must, in other words, perceive challenge as real; not imaginative, and at the same time not feel bound by it but know that we have the power to rise above it.

We need, accordingly, to confront the adversity and challenges in our lives on two opposite levels. We must, on one hand, do everything in our human capacity to alleviate and overcome life’s impediments – we are expected to achieve success and blessing through natural means – and at the same time realize that nothing is really natural. We must be aware that everything is by Divine providence.

We have therefore got to put our faith and destiny in the hands of the Almighty and at the same time do all we can within our physical ability. We can learn how to achieve this theological balancing act, from the choicest of our forefathers, Yaakov, as is described in this week’s Parsha, Vayeitzei.

When analyzing Yaakov’s adventurous life journey, beginning with the opening narrative of our Parsha; Yaakov’s departure from Be'er Sheva on his way to Charan, we generally find Yaakov pursuing two opposite paths.

Yaakov’s departure from Be'er Sheva was predicated on two respective causes, both described at the end of last week's Parsha. The first being Rivka’s discovery of her elder son, Esav’s, sinister plot. She hence instructs Yaakov to arise and flee to Lavan her brother in Charan.

The second reason for Yaakov's flight was Rivka’s weariness of the daughters of Ches. Upon sharing her deep disdain with her husband, Yitzchak instructs Yaakov not to take a wife from the daughters of Canaan, but rather to go to Padan Aram, to the home of Besuel his mother's father and take for himself a wife from the daughters of Lavan, his mother's brother (27:46 - 28:5).

The proceeding narrative, which accompanies Yaakov on his long and ominous journey, appears, on the one hand, to be a tale of human stamina, tenacity and ultimately victory. Yaakov tends to fend for himself as he survives his brother’s fatal threat, reaches Lavan's house and falls in love with Rachel. Despite being deceived by Lavan who misleads him to marry Leah, he finally manages to marry his beloved Rachel and raise a large family, which forms the building blocks of the Jewish nation.

Notwithstanding the obvious parallels between the story of Eliezer's pursuit for a wife for Yitzchak and Yaakov's path to Rachel – in both cases, the father forbids consideration of a Canaanite woman but rather one from Charan. In both stories, the journey to Charan ends at the very same well, in both cases the bride turns out to be from the family of Nachor and in both cases the meeting with the woman is followed by a meeting with the family – there are still some striking differences.

It is in fact, the strong similarities between the two narratives that tend to highlight the significant differences between them.

Whereas Yitzchak does not go out to seek a wife for himself, Yaakov travels to Charan. The quest for Yitzchak’s wife is initiated by Avraham and it is Eliezer who is dispatched to accomplish the task.  Yitzchak himself is seemingly involved in neither the decision to marry, nor in the choice of the wife.

Even the messenger; Eliezer, does not rely on his own prowess, he rather asks for G‑d's help in finding the right woman every step of the way. The Divine signs that Rivka is the right one are, in fact, a major focus of the narrative. This is evident in Avraham's explicit directive, in which he states: "The Lord G‑d of the heavens… He will send His angel before you, that you may take a wife from there for my son" (24:7). Upon choosing Rivka, Eliezer once again emphasizes that it is G‑d who had made his mission successful.

Yaakov, by contrast, is sent himself to Charan and decides for himself whom to choose for a wife and how to go about the acquisition.

Whereas Eliezer announces the purpose of his visit immediately upon arrival at Besuel's home – in accordance with Avraham’s instruction – he will not eat with the family until he has made it clear why he has come, Yaakov, by contrast, makes no mention of marriage at all in his first meeting with Lavan. A month later, when he finally breaches the subject of marriage, he says nothing about his father's command, but rather simply asks to marry Rachel.

In Yitzchak's case, there is a return journey to Canaan immediately upon finding a wife. Yaakov remains in Charan for many years. The return takes much longer and is fraught with endless hardships and battles.

The essential difference between the story of the Yitzchak’s match and that of Yaakov is the supra natural element. In Yitzchak's case practical difficulties are set aside; it is clear that G‑d will help to overcome them. Yitzhak, in fact, has no personal involvement in the match. The marriage is directed from Above; the choice is explicitly left in the hands of G‑d.

Yaakov's marriage, on the other hand, seems to be a routine human affair; reflecting human effort. A man fleeing from death finds shelter at some unknown relatives, falls in love with one of the daughters, succeeds in marrying her despite being gravely deceived in the process. There is no direct appeal by Yaakov for Divine intervention in finding a wife or in dealing with his deceitful uncle.               

The difference between Yitzchak's and Yaakov's marriage is indicative of the difference between them throughout their lives. The image of Yaakov that emerges, inspiring as it may be, is that of a man who lives within his human existential reality and deals with all of its complexities and difficulties in an independent, human way.

Yaakov, unlike Yitzchak, does not live his whole life in Canaan; he does not live exclusively in the "Upper worlds." He goes into exile and is embroiled in the ugliest, most complex realms of reality. He deals with them himself, in a human independent manner. This aspect of his life is reflected in his name, "Yaakov" (recalling his grip on Esav's heel (Ekev) during their birth).

That being said, there is another side to Yaakov, albeit much more subtle, which is reflected in the name Yisrael.

When Yaakov leaves Be'er Sheva for Charan, he is indeed fleeing from Esav, but he also receives the all-important blessing, the blessing of Avraham: the promise of the land, and the promise of descendants: “May the Almighty God bless you and make you fruitful and cause you to multiply, that you may become a multitude of peoples. And may He grant you the blessing of Avraham, to you and to your descendants with you – to inherit the land of your sojourning which God gave to Avraham” (28:3-4).

Yaakov had already received a blessing from Yitzchak, the one that was "Stolen" (chapter 27), yet here he receives the real blessing. Yaakov is blessed here to be the continuation of the House of Avraham and Yitzchak, and therefore may not marry a Canaanite woman, just as Avraham commanded Yitzchak: "You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of Canaan,"

It is not conceivable that Yaakov would ignore his commitment to marry a worthy wife. Even if he were not forced to flee from Esav, he would have to find a wife from Charan, rather than marrying a Canaanite woman.

The Torah notes that “Yitzchak sent Yaakov, and he went to Padan Aram.”  The Torah hereby attests to the fact that it is in the end Yitzchak who sends Yaakov to Charan. Yaakov goes only after Yitzchak has sent him with a command and a blessing, as the Torah continues to attest: ’Yaakov obeyed his father and his mother, and he went to Padan Aram.”

On the way to Charan, Yaakov receives further “Divine reinforcement” by way of revelation: “And behold, G‑d stood above him and said: I am the Lord G‑d of Avraham, your father, and the G‑d of Yitzchak. The land upon which you lie I shall give it to you and to your descendants…And you will spread to the west and to the east... And behold, I am with you, and I shall protect you wherever you go, and I shall bring you back to this land, for I shall not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you. (13-15)

It is rather clear from the above that while on the outer level Yaakov appears to head for Charan in response to a personal burden posed by his brother, he is, on an inner level, on a Divine mission permeated with the instruction and protection of G‑d.

Yaakov reaches Charan with the command that he must choose one of Lavan's daughters as a mate. When Rachel appears at the well Yaakov does not simply fall in love with a woman who he meets by chance. Upon his discovery that she is Lavan's daughter, it is clear to him, as a result of Divine providence; that she is going to be his wife.

So how is it that when Yaakov finds out that he has been deceived by Lavan who proceeds to give him Leah instead of Rachel, he remains married to Leah? If Lavan has disturbed the proper course of Yaakov's marriage, how is it that he allows the deceit to stand and continues to stay married to Leah? How does Yaakov perceive it possible that the origin of Am Yisrael, is built on a foundation of trickery; a "Mistake"?

Yaakov is obviously tuned into a higher Divine plan; he believes that the situation in which he finds himself is from G‑d. He realizes that it is not Lavan's deceit that leads to his marriage to Leah, but rather G‑d's will. Lavan's deceit is merely a vessel through which the proper marriage in G‑d's eyes is brought about.

While on the one hand the narrative of Yaakov is of a man who lives within his human, existential reality and deals with all of its complexities and difficulties on an autonomous individual level. At the same time, we are privy to a man of higher vision. Yaakov has received Yitzchak's blessing – the blessing of Avraham – and G‑d Himself. It is with this dual approach and vision that Yaakov heads into exile, to deal with a difficult, complex, human reality.

He must find a way to contend with Esav, so that he can obtain his father's blessing; he is forced into exile – into dealing with Lavan's trickery. He flees Lavan's house in fear, deals with a complicated family life involving four wives, two of whom are sisters, his daughter Dina is violated and in the wake of his sons' response fears the retaliation of the people of the land, the relations between his sons are complex and strained, to the point where they sell Yosef into slavery.

The story of Yaakov's life is not an easy one. The complexity of his journey is apparent at every stage. It is as though everything that happens to him reflects dual causality: a corporal and earthly manifestation, as well as an inner Divine force.

His departure from Charan was not only an escape from Esav, but was also accompanied by G‑d's blessing and a move inspired with the mission of finding a wife. His return to Canaan was not motivated solely by fear of Lavan, but also accompanied by a Divine revelation.
The arrival in Beit El is not only prompted by the fear that the men of Sh’chem are going to kill him, but also in response to G‑d's command to return to there.
The descent to Egypt is likewise not prompted solely by the desire to see Yosef. G‑d's word accompanies Yaakov's journey, imbuing the descent with a meaningful spiritual dimension.

Yaakov embodied the true model of balance in the struggle between Heaven and earth; body and soul. His life descended to the depths of human experience; he struggles at every stage. However, there is not only one dimension to his life. At every important stage of his life G‑d appears to him and inspires him with vision. Deep in his heart, in his innermost being, he is accompanied all along by a great Divine intuition. It is this very intuition that earns him his other name; "Yisrael." Yaakov continues to bear both names, because both realities continue to exist within him to the end.

Yaakov represents the idea of grappling; wrestling with all aspects of reality on the most basic and mundane level. The name Yisrael, contrarily, reflects the great inner vision that has accompanied the founding father throughout his entire journey – a journey that has lead to the foundation of Am Yisrael. It seems that it is specifically these combined names and the ideas they represent that is the source and secret of Am Yisrael.

May we fulfill our mission of fusing heaven and earth; body and soul – Yisrael and Yaakov – imparting the mundane with higher providence and purpose, and thereby preparing the world for the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.