A Recipe for Spiritual Growth
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
At the beginning of our parasha, Jacob returns to Canaan. He has been living in Charan for 20 years avoiding meeting with his brother Esau. Esau had expressed his intention of killing Jacob, as revenge for taking his blessing from their father Isaac.
Before the feared reunion, Jacob sends representatives to Esau in hope of a reconciliation, but his messengers report that his brother is coming to him with 400 armed men. A well-known commentary by Rashi to this Torah section explains that we can learn from these verses that Jacob prepares himself for the high-stakes meeting by doing three things: He prays to God, he sends Esau a huge gift (consisting of hundreds of heads of livestock) to appease him, and he gets ready for war.
Many Jewish thinkers have seen the way that Jacob prepared for his meeting with Esau as a paradigm of how Jewish leaders should prepare for crucial meetings, especially when they need to defend the interests of Jewish communities during times of unrest. The leaders should pray and hope for the best; they should try to find ways to benefit their people and avoid conflict; and they should also be prepared for the worst possible scenarios.
This week I read a commentary to Rashi’s commentary that, instead of focusing on how to prepare for critical meetings, focuses on how to prepare for spiritual growth. According to this commentary by Rabbi Yehuda Leib from Gur (Poland, 1847-1905, also known by the title of his main work, the “Sfat Emet”, a Hasidic rabbi and leader of the Gur dynasty) points out that the three ways for preparing for growing in spirituality are hinted in the first verse of the Veahavta, the beginning of the reading of the Shema Israel (Deuteronomy 6:5), as follows:
“You shall love the Lord, your God,
- with all your heart: This refers to the service of the heart, prayer.
- and with all your soul: This refers to the constant war of each person with his/her own instincts.
- and with all your means: This is the gift we all need to give, tzedakah (charity) and acts of good deeds.
This is a very interesting reframing of Rashi’s original explanation. Praying, giving gifts, and getting ready for a fight are not only a traditional Jewish way to manage stressful encounters, but also a creative way to get closer to God. Every time you say or sing the Veahavta, you are invited to think about this three-ingredients’ recipe for spiritual growth. By praying, controlling your instincts, and helping others; you can enhance your spirituality and feel more connected to God and the Jewish tradition.