This week’s portion teaches us that if we set our minds to achieve greatness, G-d can help us overcome any challenges in our way.
This week’s parsha, Vayeitzei, deals with one of the famous dreams in the Torah – Jacob’s dream of the ladder that ascended to the heavens, with the angels going up and down. In this dream – which was, in fact a prophecy – G-d renewed the covenant that He had made with Avraham and Yitzchak. He promised Yaakov that his descendants would be a great nation, that through them all the nations of the world would be blessed and that they would inherit the Land of Israel.
After Yaakov’s dispute with Eisav over the birthright and the blessings, Eisav wanted to kill him and so Yaakov fled from Beer Sheva and headed towards Charan, the birth place of his mother Rivka, as a safe haven until his brother calmed down. If you look at the opening verse of the parsha, it says: “And Yaakov left Beer Sheva and he went to Charan,” implying that he arrived there. But then it says: “And he chanced upon the place” where he lay down to sleep and had the dream. This place he chanced upon and where he had the dream was Mount Moriah, the place where his grandfather Avraham was willing to sacrifice his father, Yitzchak, and which, eventually, would become the Temple Mount.
“Jumping of the way”
How can it be that he arrived in Charan and was then back in Israel at Mount Moriah? Some commentators interpret vayeilech Charana to mean that he walked towards Charan, but had not actually arrived there yet. But the Gemara in Chullin, page 91b, which Rashi quotes, says that Yaakov actually did get to Charan. The Gemara says that when he arrived, Yaakov realised that on his journey, he had passed near Mount Moriah – which had been such a significant place for his father and grandfather – and he regretted not having stopped there to pray. The Gemara says that he was determined to return to the Land of Israel and headed all the way back from Charan. This was not just a ten- or fifteen-minute detour on the highway, but a delay that would take him weeks. But he felt such a yearning, such a sense of having lost an opportunity, that he went all the way back to that holy place to pray.
A remarkable thing then happened – a miracle, indeed; according to the Gemara, Yaakov experienced what we call in Hebrew kefitzat haderech, a “jumping of the way”. G-d actually moved him there miraculously, so that he arrived back at the place very quickly, and that is where he lay down to sleep and had the dream of prophecy.
The power of willpower
Rav Yerucham Levovitz, a great thinker and educator in the Mir Yeshiva in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century, says on this Talmudic passage that the most important ingredient for serving Hashem and making a difference in the world is willpower and determination; and in that merit, G-d gives tremendous assistance. Rav Yerucham quotes another passage in the Talmud, which says that G-d says: “If you just open for Me a crack the size of a needle’s point, I will open up the doors wide for you.” All we have to do is show Hashem determination and He will open the doors and show us the path back to Him and His Torah; we will experience a “jumping of the way”, finding many opportunities to achieve great things.
Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel of blessed memory, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir Yeshiva in Israel, was a remarkable individual and showed the powers of steel-willed determination. He did not come from a very intensive yeshiva background, yet when he arrived from America in Israel many years ago, he threw himself into Torah study to the extent that he became the next Rosh Yeshiva already in his 40s. But the most remarkable thing about him is this: he was struck with Parkinson’s disease and suffered terribly from it. He battled to walk and talk and do all the things that we take for granted. And despite his suffering, he refused to take drugs for his illness because he did not want it to dull his mind. He was giving five or six shiurim a day, raising millions of dollars to run the yeshiva budget, and the yeshiva grew from about seven or eight hundred students to over seven thousand students today, in many different branches in Israel and America. This steel-willed determination to do mitzvot and to teach Torah gave Rav Nosson Tzvi that kefitzat haderech, that sense of “jumping of the way”, where G-d’s miracles allow you to leap over the constraints and shackles of the physical world. He just leapt above his disease and was able to achieve great things.
The Mir yeshiva itself is an example of rising above the shackles of the physical world. When World War II broke out, the Mir yeshiva fled from Eastern Europe to Shanghai. If you think about it, what prospects did this yeshiva have, spending the war years in Shanghai? Europe was burning, many of the family and friends of the yeshiva students were being murdered by Hitler. What future could they possibly have? Never in their wildest dreams did they think there would be a jumping of the way. Yet the yeshiva, which relocated from Europe to China and then moved on to America and Israel, grew tremendously – to far greater numbers than what they’d had in Europe. That is a supernatural jumping of the way, and shows how Hashem’s hand guides history and human affairs. G-d is not constrained by any of the laws of the physical universe, because He created these laws and so He can help us leap over those limitations and achieve greatness.
With G-d’s help, any obstacle can be overcome
We are all trying to become better Jews, to learn more Torah and do more mitzvot, and sometimes it feels like it’s a mountain we’ll never conquer and we cannot seem to find our way back to G-d. The message of our forefather Yaakov, and a contemporary example, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, is that if we are determined and throw ourselves into doing more mitzvot, learning more Torah, contributing to the community and doing good things, G-d will give us that jumping of the way where we can achieve things we didn’t even imagine possible.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, one of the key Jewish leaders who rebuilt Torah in America after the World War II – at a time when people were so despondent and doubted they would ever rebuild the yeshivas they had lost in Europe – comments that this miracle of the jumping of the way was not that Yaakov jumped back to Mount Moriah, but that the mountain actually moved and came to him, in Charan. When Yaakov awakens in the morning, he says: “How awesome is this place. It is the house of Hashem, the gateway to heaven.” Yaakov’s realisation, says Rav Moshe, was that G-d was saying to him that even though he is stuck in the very hostile, pagan environment of Charan, with his uncle Lavan who was a very unethical person, far away from his parents and the holiness and purity of their home, he could still maintain the standards and values that he had grown up with and achieve great things. Yaakov felt that he might not be able to, and so G-d showed him that Mount Moriah, this very place where his father and grandfather stood at the Akeida and where the Temple would one day be built, had come all the way to him, there in Charan. Then he saw the vision of the ladder and he realised that even in Charan, Hashem’s house can be found. The gateway to heaven is always open, and he can reach Hashem anywhere, in any situation.
We often give ourselves excuses. We say, maybe other people can keep Torah and mitzvot because they have the means or the life circumstances that enable them to keep them, but for ourselves, we have different circumstances; we imagine all sorts of limitations. We come up with all sorts of excuses because we are filled with despondency; we don’t think we can achieve, and it is more comfortable for us to let ourselves off the hook – we don’t have to strive for greatness, we don’t have to learn more Torah and become great people with greater vision, outreach, chessed and mitzvot, because we are “limited”. What Yaakov realised is that even in Charan he had the opportunity to grow and achieve greatness, which in fact he did. The message of Yaakov is that we can actually achieve so much more. Hashem will help us and give us the jumping of the way to leap over any constraints.
If there is one thing Jewish history has taught us, it is survival – not just of the Jewish people but of the Torah Hashem has given us. The Torah has survived and thrived, even after all was destroyed in Europe. It is growing at rates we have never seen before, because it is not part of the physical universe. The rebirth of Torah has experienced a leaping of the way. We have to believe in the miraculous power of it. If we throw ourselves into it, if we are determined to grow and have the willpower and determination, anything is possible.