Finding Kedushah in the Ordinary1
By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
If we wanted to distill a single theme from all the stories preceding the giving of the Torah, we could easily see it as the tikun, the perfecting, of the core midos2. Each of the avos, followed by the other3 members of the Seven Shepherds, devoted himself to one of the midos, embracing it well enough that it became fixed in the human sphere, and opened a conduit to its Divine Influence. (Chesed L’Avraham explains the otherwise confusing references to the ten lands of Israel that were to become our patrimony, which are often reduced in the text of the Torah to seven. The seven represent the midos that were addressed by the Seven Shepherds, from which we draw fully; the remaining three represent the upper sefiros of chochmah, binah and da’as, whose tikun is the responsibility of Moshiach!)
This is easier to see in some cases than others. Avraham, for example, affixed chesed/ahavah to the human condition. The ten tests he was subjected to are readily understood as supportive of that role: they demonstrated how Avraham, faced with difficulty and disappointment, never lost a beat in serving Hashem with joy and alacrity. The narrative of his life is an unfolding of the greatness of his accomplishment.
What shall we say, however, about Yaakov? His narrative seems so mundane, so full of details about ordinary, pedestrian life – dealing with sibling strife, acquiring a large family, raising the children, making a living.
In truth, however, the sagas of the two avos are precisely balanced and parallel. Yaakov is about kedushah, holiness, and more specifically, about the kedushah inherent within the ordinary. Yaakov showed us how to elevate the events and objects of material existence and turn them into spirituality on the highest plane; the commonplace occurrences of his life become Torah! (In Hoshanos, we plead with Hashem to show us mercy in the merit of various deeds of the avos. One of the items on the list is Yaakov’s “peeling rods” – the rods he would use to produce the sheep-offspring according to the constantly changing arrangement with Lavan. How holy can peeling rods be? Yet this is exactly the point. When the avos went about their daily routines, they infused every moment, every gesture with lofty thoughts and intentions. Yaakov’s peeling of rods was a process of pure avodas Hashem!)
Our activities can be roughly divided into three categories: affirmative obligations, prohibitions, and reshus – that which is neither commanded nor forbidden. Avraham, the av of chesed and ahavah, is the foundation of the 248 affirmative obligations, all of which are expressions of our love of Hashem. Yitzchok, representing gevurah and yirah, is the basis for the avodah of heeding the Torah’s 365 prohibitions.
We immediately understand where that leaves Yaakov. His avodah was to address all the activities of our world that are neither commanded nor proscribed, the activities we call reshus. How appropriate that the prayer that is linked to Yaakov is the evening prayer, which Chazal call a reshus4!
R. Baruch of Medzhibozh explained the familiar line in davening “Kedoshenu Kedosh Yaakov:” “Ribbono Shel Olam! Sanctify us in the manner that Yaakov is holy! From where would Yaakov draw his kedushah, if not from Your sanctifying him? Sanctify us as well!” Now, this argument could have been attached to any of the avos. Why was Yaakov picked? It is as we have stated. Yaakov’s avodah was to multiply kedushah through the limitless opportunities of interaction with the world of reshus.
The content of the first three berachos of Shemonah Asreh echoes this theme. The first berachah – ending magen Avraham – ties in to the first of the avos. It speaks of great chasodim, and Hashem performing them with ahavah. The second of the berachos references the contribution of Yitzchok, the second of the avos, by invoking his contribution of gevurah. Thus, “atah gibor…ba’al gevuros.” This leaves the terse third berachah, dealing entirely with kedushah, to the orbit of Yaakov.
Yaakov’s dream serves as the backdrop to what would become his vocation. He had spent many decades quietly receiving from his father, and then added fourteen years of study in the yeshiva of Ever, during which he did not lay down to sleep. Involvement in mundane matters was completely foreign to him; he achieved a supernal holiness that merited his station as the bechir he-avos, the “choicest” of the forefathers, the one whose name would be lent to the nation that would descend from him. He set off for Choron, for charono shel olam, the wrath of an unfriendly world. He “encountered” the special place where he would experience the vision of the ladder. Chazal tell us that this encounter meant that he sought to travel on, to escape, but the place itself opposed him like a solid wall blocking him. What they mean is that he contemplated his task to bring kedushah to the world of reshus – and was stymied. All the emptiness and vacuousness of ordinary life stood as a huge obstacle before him. Where was the opening in this formidable wall? Where could one enter it in a meaningful manner?
Hashem showed him an image that captured the essence of his task, and addressed the fear that plagued him. All the occupations and events of the world of reshus are like the ladder, planted firmly in the ground, and reaching the Heavens themselves. Through the world of reshus – more accurately, specifically through the world of reshus! – a Jew can reach the greatest heights of spirituality. (In order to succeed, however, Man must take pains while navigating that world to keep his head – like the ladder – always in the Heavens.)
Yaakov says it all upon awakening. “There is in fact Godliness in this place! I did not know it! I did not realize how much could be spiritually accomplished through the world of the mundane and ordinary.” Yaakov then “picked up his feet” and continued eastward. He had absorbed the lesson of the ladder. He learned how to raise up the things closest to earthliness, and direct them to a higher place.
He continues on to the well, the source of the flow that sustains all like – an allusion to the sefirah of yesod, which provides the main flow of Divine influence. The well was sealed up by the weight of the stone, the yetzer hora, the evil inclination that would not yield for those gathered around. Three flocks waited expectantly, signifying the three divisions of human activity: mitzvah, prohibition, reshus. The shepherds would band together and remove the stone. The Torah hints at an important strategy. It is not within our individual power to tame all the yetzer hora we must face in our lives. We need the strength of the tzibbur, the collective. (R. Noach of Lechovitz used to say that ten Jews constitute a minyan, in a superficial sense. If those same Jews bind their souls together, they become a minyan in a deeper, more profound sense.) Creating kedushah is a task for the group, the collective. The Torah alludes to this when it instructs “the entire congregation of Bnei Yisrael” in the mitzvah of kedoshim tee’yu, you shall be holy. Success in the avodah of generating holiness requires the work of the tzibbur.
The rest is commentary. Yaakov would continue the process of “picking up” and raising up all material things in his path as he married, raised a family, and contended with Lavan – elevating and sanctifying all he encountered.
1 Based on Nesivos Shalom, pgs. 182-186
2 Midos here do not mean personality traits, in the sense that the Mussar teachers use the word. Rather, they are synonymous with the sefiros. In a sense, the sefiros, which are different ways in which the Divine Will is shaped into different consequences and results, represent the “personality traits” as it were of Hashem – the way in which His inner Will expresses itself in different predictable patterns.
3 Yosef, Moshe, Aharon, and Dovid
4Reshus in this sense means non-mandatory, or optional. Before Klal Yisrael accepted the practice of regarding maariv is a fixed obligation, it was an exercise in voluntarism, up to each individual to decide if he wanted to daven it or not.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org