Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim – Associate Rosh Yeshiva – PTI – Passaic Torah Institute – Parsha Vayetze – Unblocking Our Prayers

When you’re a father in a house mostly filled with girls, you put on the fixer-man hat quite often. Last week I was Baruch the Plumber, sent to unclog a sink drain full of hair. I rolled up my sleeves, gathered my strength, and went into the bathroom with my trusty snake to clear that drain. Baruch Hashem, I emerged successful!

Believe it or not, this little episode reminded me of an incredible insight from the Sfas Emes on Parshas Vayeitzei.

Yaakov arrives at the outskirts of Charan and sees many shepherds gathered around a well. They are all waiting for extra hands to appear to lift the massive boulder covering the well. As Yaakov comes closer, he sees a young girl approaching the well with a flock of sheep. He confirms this girl was Rochel, the daughter of Lavan, his uncle. Seeing she will need water for her flock, Yaakov walks over to the well and removes the boulder all by himself. Rochel and the other shepherds are in awe. Rashi quotes the midrash that says that Yaakov removed the rock from the well like a cork from a bottle. Why did Rashi describe it this way—like a cork from a bottle? How was Yaakov able to do this when many shepherds together could not?

The Sfas Emes explains the symbolism of the stone on the mouth of the well. The well represents our ability to draw forth tefillah (prayer) and Torah from within ourselves. The stone represents the blockages that prevent us from opening our mouths in prayer or Torah study. Often, we want to daven or learn Torah, but we find we just can’t focus. The shepherds needed a lot of help to move the stone—similar to our needing a minyan (a group of at least 10 men) to gather together to pray.

The same can be said of learning Torah. It’s much more easily done in a group.

So how was Yaakov able to remove the heavy boulder by himself? There was a fundamental difference between Yaakov and the shepherds. The shepherds viewed the rock as a heavy obstacle blocking their access to water. Yaakov viewed the rock as a cork in a bottle. A cork serves a very important function—it protects the contents of the bottle. The rock wasn’t just preventing access to the water; it was also protecting the water in the well from foreign substances falling inside.

Similarly, we may sometimes feel the words of prayer are blocked from our mouths. In truth, it may be Hashem helping us to slow down. When we are compelled to dig deeper and work harder at our davening, our words gain a new dimension of sincerity and meaning.

There was a young man I befriended who was very estranged from Torah and mitzvos. He had been challenged with addictions and abuse for many years. One Yom Kippur, I was delighted to see him enter the shul. This was the first time he had walked into a shul in 10 years! I greeted him with a big smile. I kept glancing at him throughout the day and saw on his face that he was struggling. Yet, near the end of the day, at the powerful and moving Neilah prayer, I saw tears streaming down his cheeks.

The next time we met I told him how proud I was of him and asked him to share his Yom Kippur experience with me. He said, “I came into shul and wanted to pray, but I couldn’t do it. All my struggles were creating a wall in front of me. How could I pray after all I have done? How can I open my mouth in prayer to Hashem? Finally, at Neilah, I remembered the gates were fully open at that time. Hashem now wanted to hear my prayers and I started to cry. The words just started flowing. I was so happy—I was able to pray again!”

Whenever we struggle to find the words, or to capture the feeling in our davening, let’s remember not to view our struggle as trying to lift a heavy rock from a well, but rather removing a cork from a bottle, which was placed there to keep our prayers pure and sincere.

Yacov Nordlicht – Vayetze – Yaakov’s “Light”

In this week’s parsha, we find a pasuk which is difficult to understand on a superficial level. The pasuk tells us that when Yaakov Avinu went to the house of Lavan, he wished to take Rachel as his wife. The Torah relates how the shidduch was made, and how  Yaakov Avinu agreed to work for Lavan for seven years in order to obtain Rachel as his wife. The difficulty is that the pasuk says that these seven years felt like a mere few days in the eyes of Yaakov Avinu. I always had a problem with this. When a person wants something and is waiting for it, the time spent waiting usually feels longer than normal, not shorter! L’mashal, if a person is sitting through a lecture and he can’t wait until it ends to run out to go to the bathroom, the lecture feels interminable! So what’s pshat that by Yaakov Avinu the time felt shorter?

The Chizkuni gives one answer which is a chiddush in how to learn the pasuk. He says that in reality, it did feel like forever to Yaakov Avinu. What the pasuk means is that Yaakov Avinu was able to look at it after the fact in a positive light and say, “Wow, that felt like fifty years, but it was only really a few days!” That is, even though it really did feel like a very long time, he was able to revel at the fact that the perceived long time was fit into such a short time.

I would like to offer a different answer, perhaps a hargasha. Really, the pasuk is meant to be taken literally. It did only feel like a few days in the eyes of Yaakov. Avinu, then what’s pshat – according to the human intellect, something like this usually feels much longer? I think the answer lies in a Sfas Emes on this week’s parsha.

The Sfas Emes says that as we know, Yaakov Avinu was mesaken (instituted) Maariv. Why? The Sfas Emes says, that the yesod of Maariv is to bring Hashem’s light into the darkness. It’s essentially a chiddush. Why would we think that a person could always have a connection to Hashem, even if he’s involved himself in the most lowly disgusting darkness this world has to offer? That was the Maariv that Yaakov Avinu was mechadesh. That even amidst the darkest night, there’s always an availability for a connection to Hashem. Yaakov was an embodiment of this yesod. He lived a life of strife and pain! Yet nevertheless, within that dark night, there was always light.

That’s the pshat behind Yaakov being mesaken maariv, and I think that’s also the pshat in the pasuk. The pasuk is teaching us a chiddush! In reality, it should’ve felt like a long time to Yaakov Avinu! All he wanted to do was marry Rachel, not to work for his father-in-law who epitomized everything Yaakov opposed! Yet even so, for a person who always finds that connection to Hashem, for someone who’s always connected to a higher level of existence – for that person, he’ll always have simcha. And because of that simcha, even a span of seven years will only feel like a few days.

This yesod is very nogeiah to all of us, each on our own level. Everyone experiences darkness in their life. It may be with their frumkeit, their jobs, family, etc… And within that darkness, it may sometimes seem as if there’s no end! Yet its specifically while experiencing that darkness that a person can come to a deep sense of simcha. For when a person is in pain, he calls out to Hashem, he connects to Hashem, and from that connection comes fulfillment and happiness. With that, one can overcome his obstacles and live a happy life, even amidst the darkness which one encounters.