Vayishlach: Living A Full Life

Life and Death

When are you most alive, after birth or after death?

That is a crowd stopping question. What in the world does it mean?

Well, think about it. When you were born, G-d breathed a soul, a part of Himself, a slice of heaven, into your body. Your soul is your lifeline. Without your soul, your body has no life.

Your soul, your pulsing force of life, enters an inherently dead body and must make do in this lifeless environment for seven to ten decades. Surely, the body is alive, but its life is borrowed from the soul. This means that the soul is constantly swimming upstream, infusing life into an otherwise lifeless environment.

After death, the soul is free again. Free to return to the world of souls where it lives fully, without constriction or limitation. In heaven, there is only life. A powerful, pulsating rush of life. So returning to our earlier question, when are you most alive, when you are restricted to a lifeless body or when you are liberated to live fully and exquisitely?[1]

The Exiled Intellectual

Imagine a sophisticated intellectual sent to a faraway province to teach children. For three decades he is forced to distill his deep knowledge into child language. He is a wonderful teacher and the children love him, but can you imagine how alive and free he will be, when he is finally permitted to return home?

How does this academic survive his long exile? He has a secret hideaway where many of his old books are stashed. The books are grey with age, their pages crinkly. Some are cracked, others missing, the ink is faint and some lines are illegible, but they are books. They are his lifeline. He sneaks away at every opportunity to engage his mind and luxuriate in contemplation. Granted, it’s not like home. Here he has no one to discuss it with, he has only a limited amount of time and he must rely heavily on his memory to fil in the blanks, but these stolen moments are heavenly. They save his sanity and will help him pick up where he left off, when he returns home.

The soul does the same. While it is here, it snatches every opportunity to gain a heavenly moment. It cajoles, begs and even misleads the body into doing good deeds, studying G-d’s Torah and performing G-d’s will. These moments are precious and few, but they restore its sanity. They help the soul overcome the confinement of the body and allow it to luxuriate in true heavenly light. This isn’t the pure bliss of heaven, these moments are a mere glimmer of their heavenly counterparts, but they enable the soul to return to heaven and pick up where it left off.[2] They are literally “life savers” (no pun intended).

Houses And Huts

This explains why Jacob, upon his return to Canaan, built a house for himself and huts for his cattle.[3] For twenty years Jacob had no time for himself. His life was indentured to his father in law, Laban. He was required to shepherd the cattle, provide for the herd and grow it. His wives raised his children, he barely saw them. He was home only at night and not every night at that.

This was no life for a spiritual giant like Jacob. But it was necessary. It was there that he married his wives and it was there that his children were born. It was there that Jacob established a homestead predicated on moral values and Divine teaching despite the environment of paganism and deceit. Like the intellectual sent to provide an education to provincial children that would not otherwise not receive an education, Jacob lived in Haran, to lead by example and show the people how to live a saintly life.

This was important work, but it was torture. Surely Jacob snatched every free moment to pray, study and meditate. There is no question that Jacob spent time on the range and in the pasture communing with G-d, but it was a distracted communion. Constantly interrupted by the needs of the herd. These stolen moments were sweet. He found them by day and by night. But they were short and few.

Upon his return to Canaan, Jacob set a new tone. For himself he built a home. When we say himself, we mean all that is meaningful and precious to him including his family, his books and his spiritual pursuits. For his cattle, the endeavor that occupied all his time, waking and sleeping, for twenty years, he built huts. Houses are sturdy permanent places. Huts are flimsy temporary places. The message was clear. My pursuits going forward will be on things permanent and eternal. The temporal transient things, are merely that. Temporal and transient. Unimportant and insignificant, compared to my true interests.

The True Me

We see an example of this in Abraham. When Abraham grew old, he gave “all that was his,” to Isaac. To his other children, he gave “gifts.”[4] Gifts are expensive, they show love and appreciation, but they were not, “him.” They were temporal, material things, outside of him. Those he gave to his other children. To Isaac, the son who would succeed him in his life’s mission, he gave himself. All that was “his.”

This is why Jacob named his new home, Sukkot. Sukkot means huts. He named the place after the unimportant things in life to remind visitors and inhabitants that places and things are of passing value, they belong in mere huts. This world is a hut. Life in the body is a hut. They are like passing shadows.

Don’t waste too much energy on the hut. Expend it where it really counts, in the sturdy permanent home. Invest your time in pursuits that will accompany you on your final journey. Things of lasting eternal value. Give your money to charity. Invest your time in Torah study. Expend your energy on good deeds. Direct your passion toward loving G-d and your fellow. For these things you build a house.

You must also make a living, buy furniture, eat and sleep, but those are of secondary transient value. You need them only so you can pursue your primary interests. Place them in the hut of your mind. Assign them temporal value, but don’t waste your time prioritizing those.

The physical space, he named Sukkot. The physical environment is lifeless without the soul. They last only as long as the soul gives them life and then they die. They deteriorate, rot and decompose. Don’t invest in them. Don’t get excited about them. Your real interests are your soul’s interests. Snatch those moments at every opportunity and give your soul the gift of unrestrained unmitigated life.[5]

[1] This question presupposes that you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. Conversely, you are not a body, you have a body.

[2] In fact, they allow the soul to ascend to an even higher sphere of heaven then the one it descended from.

[3] Genesis 33: 17.

[4] Genesis 25: 5-6.

[5] This essay is based on commentary by rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin on Genesis 33: 17.