The Power of a 3596 Year-Old Tremble
A human shudder is mentioned three times in
the Torah (and several more times in Tanach):
The first – in this week’s
Torah portion: Isaac shuddered a great, very great, shudder when Esau approached
Isaac to receive the blessing that Jacob had already “stolen” (Genesis 27:33).
The tribes shuddered when
they discovered the money planted in their sacks (Genesis 42:28). “What is
this that G-d is doing to us?” they asked with sinking hearts as they realized
that they were being held accountable for the blood of their brother Joseph
whom they sold into slavery.
At Sinai – the people
in the camp shuddered (Exodus 19:16). Indeed, the entire mountain shuddered
The sages actually connect
these three shudders: According to Rabbi Judah (Zohar I 144b) Jacob’s anguish
over the loss of Joseph was a punishment for causing his father Isaac to shudder.
The Midrash (Ohr Ha’afeilah
in manuscript) says that due to Isaac’s shudder his children shuddered at
What connection is there
between these three events?
Every shudder reflects
a serious disturbance. When we become aware that things are not aligned we
Our universe in general
and each person individually, is dichotomous in nature – comprised of matter
and spirit, body and soul – two forces driven in opposite directions. The
battle between matter and spirit creates serious turbulence, which lies at
the root of all existential loneliness and despair – more than enough reason
However this dissonance
is not always apparent.
The story of Jacob and
Esau reflects the struggle of life itself resulting from the tension between
matter and spirit. The twin brothers Jacob and Esau embody two personalities
and two nations that are odds with each other from their moment of conception
(in Rebecca’s womb): “Two nations are in your womb. Two governments will separate
from inside you. The upper hand will go from one nation to the other.”
Esau and Jacob represent
two forces in each of our lives and in the world as a whole: Esau, the “skilled
hunter, a man of the field,” symbolizes the body, the material world, whose
untamed elements need to be conquered. Jacob, the “wholesome man, who dwells
in the tents,” embodies the soul, the spiritual world. Initially these two
worlds do not co-exist. Matter and spirit are at war with each other. “When
one rises the other falls.”
In mystical terms the struggle between Jacob and Esau represents the process
called Avodat habirurim: Everything in our material
existence contains Divine “sparks,” i.e. spiritual
energy, and we are charged with the mission to extricate,
redeem and elevate these sparks, to uncover the spiritual
opportunity embedded in every experience, and thereby refine
the material universe and transform it into its true purpose:
a vehicle for spiritual expression.
Originally, Esau was to be Jacob’s partner in the
endeavor to redeem the Divine “sparks.” Esau’s
warrior was meant to tame the crass elements of materialism
and shaping them into vehicles of the sublime. But the material
Esau first needs the spiritual Jacob for direction and focus.
To gain the material blessings that Isaac had designated
for Esau, Jacob garbs himself in Esau’s clothes, to
redeem the powerful energy within matter (for further elaboration
and Esau: Two Nations, The
Power of Human Exertion).
After Jacob camouflaged
as Esau receives Isaac’s blessings, Esau returns from his hunt in the field
and presents himself before his father Isaac. As Esau enters Isaac’s presence,
Isaac senses the profound dissonance between matter and spirit, between Esau
and Jacob. And he shudders violently: Something is wrong, terribly wrong.
What exactly caused Isaac
to be seized with such a violent shudder?
One opinion is that Isaac
shuddered when he realized that Esau was not who Isaac thought he was: Isaac
“saw Gehennom [hell] open beneath him” (Rashi – from Tanchuma Brocho 1. Zohar
ibid). According to this opinion, Jacob was not punished for this shudder
(see Ohr HaChama Zohar ibid). A second opinion is that Jacob was also
the cause of his shudder. So though G-d agreed that Jacob should receive the
blessings, but because he caused his father such pain (i.e. he made him aware
of the deep discord), Jacob would later be affected in turn with the loss
Joseph being sold by his brothers was another manifestation of the schism
between matter and spirit. See The
Selling of Joseph.
And finally, Isaac’s shudder caused the Jewish people to
shudder as they stood at Sinai. The Psalmist writes: “From
heaven You caused sentence to be heard, the earth feared
and was still” (Psalms 76:9). Explains the Talmud (Shabbas
88a), that until Sinai “the earth feared” because the universe’s
material existence was tenuous without its connection to
its spiritual purpose. When this connection was established
at Sinai the earth “was still.”
It was therefore quite
appropriate that standing before Sinai “the people in the camp - as well as
the mountain – shuddered.” [Perhaps the mountain “shuddered violently”
because the people were after all children of Jacob, and thus not quite distant
from their spiritual calling. By contrast, the mountain was very much part
of the material “earth” which stood in fear.]
Yet, even after the stillness affected by Sinai the battle
rages on, but now we are armed with the formal tools to
bridge Esau’s matter with Jacob’s spirit.
3596 years ago our grandfather
Isaac shuddered a violent shudder. He shuddered for the misalignment of the
universe. He shuddered for every painful experience that would take place
over the ages. He shuddered when he saw the terrible consequences of the battles
between Esau and Jacob – the wars that would be waged between these two global
powers, two forces in history – Rome and Jerusalem.
He shuddered as he realized
how difficult, how enormously painful the struggle would be throughout history
between the forces of matter and the forces of spirit.
His shudder continued to reverberate throughout the eons.
But the shudder of a Tzaddik
is not mere fear. It absorbs some of the shock and pain – making it easier
for us to weave our way through the challenges.
And weave we did. Through
all the havoc, persecutions and expulsions, we stand today at the threshold
of a new world: A world which will finally be “still” – at peace with itself,
with its neighbors, and above all – with its Divine purpose.
Some shudders have such power.
* * *
Question for the week: Please share
any examples of how a tremble, a shudder in life has yielded
a question for future weeks.