Parshat Vayishlah – Contributing to civilization, worshiping G-d

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about Ya’acov’s journey back from Haran after 20 years of labor.

The Torah (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Torah
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about Ya’acov’s journey back from Haran (also called Padan Aram) after 20 years of labor, accompanied by his wives, his children and his great wealth, heading to the land where he was born and raised – the Land of Canaan.
When Ya’acov reaches Canaan, he searches for an appropriate place to settle and finds the city of Shechem suitable for him.
The verse that describes Ya’acov’s settling in Shechem is written in rather irregular language. This brought the sages of the Talmud to find a hint in it of another act that Ya’acov performed there. This is the language of the verse: “And Jacob came safely [to] the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Padan Aram, and he encamped [vayichan] before the city.” (Genesis 33:18) According to the sages, “and he encamped [“vayichan”] before the city” hints at an action of chen (“grace”) or chanina (“pardon”) that Ya’acov performed upon arriving in Shechem. This is how the Talmud explains this verse: “Vayichan [and he encamped] before the city” – Rav said: He established coins for them, and Shmuel said: He established markets, and Rabbi Yohanan said: He established bathhouses for them. (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Shabbat, daf 33) When we read the words of these sages, we are a bit surprised. The holy fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Ya’acov, are described everywhere as special people of strong faith and especially moral values. If we would be asked what Ya’acov would likely do when he arrives at a new town, we would probably answer that Ya’acov would build a yeshiva. Or, at the very least, that he would establish a Torah lesson, or he would direct the residents of the place on proper behavior, charity, etc... But to our great surprise, Ya’acov does not deal with any of that. He dealt with benefiting the residents of the place in simple materialistic ways: coins, markets or bathhouses.
Why did Ya’acov choose to deal with the kind of economy practiced in Shechem or in the personal hygiene of its inhabitants? This talk about Ya’acov’s deeds is discussed in the Talmud in a very interesting context. Right there, the Talmud tells the famous story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who sharply criticized the Roman rulers of his time. When his words reached the Roman rulers, they sentenced him to death and he had to escape together with his son Elazar and hide in a cave. Rabbi Shimon and his son were in that cave for 12 years, until they found out that the Roman caesar died and all his decrees were canceled following his death. During those 12 years, Rabbi Shimon and his son sat and did one thing: They devotedly studied Torah.
After they left the cave and started to meet people, they were surprised to see people plowing and planting their fields. Their complete disconnect for 12 years caused them to see dealing with fields as worthless. So much so, that whatever they looked at would burn.
Then they heard a “divine voice,” a sort of heavenly declaration that only they heard, and the following harsh words were uttered: “Did you come out to destroy My world?! Return to your cave!” They immediately returned to the cave for another year during which they internalized the message told to them. During this year they understood that working toward building a better civilization does not conflict with the lofty values that the Torah teaches. And not only does it not conflict, it is the right way in which to make actual these values.
Following the additional year, Rabbi Shimon and his son left the cave. They began talking to people they met, and their conversations were completely different than the ones they had had before this year. They asked people: Is there anything in your town that needs repair? How can we help you live lives which are correct and balanced? They learned this from Ya’acov Avinu. Ya’acov did not disconnect from the world. On the contrary, he dealt with developing civilization and established coins, markets and bathhouses. In this way he sanctified G-d’s name through his mannerisms and lifestyle and radiated the way in which others should walk and the deeds they should do.
They understood that contributing to civilization and improving it is the correct way in which to implement the values of the Torah perfectly.
A man can be a scientist, a doctor, an economist, a technician, a plumber or a carpenter. In any area, if he works honestly and fairly and makes sure to implement the values of the Torah and radiates this to his surroundings, he is following in the footsteps of Ya’acov Avinu from whom we learn that contributing to civilization is the best way to express the values and the commandments that the Torah teaches us.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.