Parashat Vayeseh: Torah Commitment in Times of Hardship
Parashat Vayeseh begins with Yaakob Abinu’s departure from his homeland, and his journey to Haran, where he would marry, beget a family, and become wealthy tending to Laban’s flocks. The Midrash tells us that before Yaakob left for Haran, he first went to the yeshiva of Shem and Eber, where he spent fourteen years engrossed in Torah learning.
Why did Yaakob first spend these years learning Torah? Why did he not immediately go to Haran to get married and start a family?
One answer that has been given stems from a different passage of the Midrash, which tells us of something else that happened to Yaakob after he left his parents’ home. Esav, who wanted to kill Yaakob for taking the blessing which was intended for him, sent his son, Elifaz, to chase after Yaakob and murder him. When Elifaz reached Yaakob, he could not bring himself to kill his uncle. He had learned with his grandfather, Yishak Abinu (according to another version of the Midrash, Elifaz had actually learned with Yaakob), and so he absorbed enough of Yishak’s saintliness to be incapable of murdering his uncle in cold blood. On the other hand, he could not allow himself to disobey his father’s orders. Yaakob recommended that Elifaz take all his possessions in lieu of killing him. Our Sages teach that an impoverished person is considered, in a certain sense, "dead," and so by seizing all of Yaakob’s belongings, Elifaz will, in a way, have "killed" him. Elifaz took everything Yaakob had, which is why when Yaakob arrived in Haran, he had nothing with him.
As the Ramban (Rav Moshe Nahmanides, 1194-1270) famously teaches, "Ma’aseh Abot Siman La’banim" – the experiences of our righteous patriarchs established certain patterns for their descendants, and their actions instilled within the Jewish Nation certain qualities and characteristics which have accompanied our people ever since. It has thus been suggested that Yaakob, after losing all his possessions, went to study Torah to establish the precedent of devotion to Torah learning even in times of hardship. Once he became impoverished, Yaakob turned to the yeshiva in order to instill within all of us this unique quality, an unwavering, uncompromising and unflinching commitment to Torah even under very difficult circumstances.
Indeed, as we know, many generations of Jews managed to devote themselves to the study and practice of Torah even under the harshest conditions. Whether it was poverty, persecution or illness, Heaven forbid, there were always Jews who remained loyal to, and passionate about, learning and observing Torah despite the very difficult circumstances which they endured.
After the years spent learning, Yaakob finally made his way to Haran, and along the way, as the Torah tells, he slept and beheld the famous dream of a ladder extending to the heavens, with angels going up and down the ladder. The Ba’al Ha’turim (Rabbenu Yaakob Ben Asher, 1269-1343) notes that the word "Sulam" (when it is spelled with the letter "Vav") has the Gematria (numerical value) of 136, which is the same Gematria as that of the word "Mamon" ("money") and of the word "Oni" ("poverty"). Yaakob was shown that the world is like a ladder, with people rising and descending all the time. The "wheel of fortune" is constantly turning, with people "ascending" and "descending," earning and losing wealth. Life is full of "ups and downs." We all enjoy happier times and less happy times. Yaakob Abinu is our model of consistency, showing us that we must remain steadfastly committed to Torah at every "rung," at every stage, even when circumstances are difficult.
In our times, we do not face the kind of economic hardship or persecution that previous generations endured. We do, however, face other, unprecedented obstacles to Torah study and observance. The distractions and temptations that present themselves today are far greater and more threatening than those faced by any previous generation. But Yaakob Abinu instilled within us the strength and fortitude to commit ourselves to Torah even under the harshest conditions. We face unique challenges in our generation, but we must trust in our ability to overcome these challenges and continue proudly bearing the treasured legacy of Abraham, Yishak and Yaakob.