Finding Kedushah in the Ordinary1
By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
If we wanted to distill a single theme from all the stories preceding the
giving of the Torah, we could easily see it as the tikun, the
perfecting, of the core midos2.
Each of the avos, followed by the other3 members of the Seven Shepherds, devoted himself to one
of the midos, embracing it well enough that it became fixed in the
human sphere, and opened a conduit to its Divine Influence. (Chesed
L’Avraham explains the otherwise confusing references to the ten lands
of Israel that were to become our patrimony, which are often reduced in
the text of the Torah to seven. The seven represent the midos that
were addressed by the Seven Shepherds, from which we draw fully; the
remaining three represent the upper sefiros of chochmah,
binah and da’as, whose tikun is the responsibility of
This is easier to see in some cases than others. Avraham, for example,
affixed chesed/ahavah to the human condition. The ten tests he was
subjected to are readily understood as supportive of that role: they
demonstrated how Avraham, faced with difficulty and disappointment, never
lost a beat in serving Hashem with joy and alacrity. The narrative of his
life is an unfolding of the greatness of his accomplishment.
What shall we say, however, about Yaakov? His narrative seems so mundane,
so full of details about ordinary, pedestrian life – dealing with sibling
strife, acquiring a large family, raising the children, making a living.
In truth, however, the sagas of the two avos are precisely balanced
and parallel. Yaakov is about kedushah, holiness, and more
specifically, about the kedushah inherent within the ordinary.
Yaakov showed us how to elevate the events and objects of material
existence and turn them into spirituality on the highest plane; the
commonplace occurrences of his life become Torah! (In Hoshanos, we
plead with Hashem to show us mercy in the merit of various deeds of the
avos. One of the items on the list is Yaakov’s “peeling rods” –
the rods he would use to produce the sheep-offspring according to the
constantly changing arrangement with Lavan. How holy can peeling rods
be? Yet this is exactly the point. When the avos went about their
daily routines, they infused every moment, every gesture with lofty
thoughts and intentions. Yaakov’s peeling of rods was a process of pure
Our activities can be roughly divided into three categories: affirmative
obligations, prohibitions, and reshus – that which is neither
commanded nor forbidden. Avraham, the av of chesed and ahavah, is the
foundation of the 248 affirmative obligations, all of which are
expressions of our love of Hashem. Yitzchok, representing gevurah
and yirah, is the basis for the avodah of heeding the
Torah’s 365 prohibitions.
We immediately understand where that leaves Yaakov. His avodah was to
address all the activities of our world that are neither commanded nor
proscribed, the activities we call reshus. How appropriate that
the prayer that is linked to Yaakov is the evening prayer, which Chazal
call a reshus4!
R. Baruch of Medzhibozh explained the familiar line in davening
“Kedoshenu Kedosh Yaakov:” “Ribbono Shel Olam! Sanctify us in the
manner that Yaakov is holy! From where would Yaakov draw his
kedushah, if not from Your sanctifying him? Sanctify us as well!”
Now, this argument could have been attached to any of the avos.
Why was Yaakov picked? It is as we have stated. Yaakov’s avodah
was to multiply kedushah through the limitless opportunities of
interaction with the world of reshus.
The content of the first three berachos of Shemonah Asreh
echoes this theme. The first berachah – ending magen
Avraham – ties in to the first of the avos. It speaks of great
chasodim, and Hashem performing them with ahavah. The second
of the berachos references the contribution of Yitzchok, the second
of the avos, by invoking his contribution of gevurah. Thus,
“atah gibor…ba’al gevuros.” This leaves the terse third
berachah, dealing entirely with kedushah, to the orbit of
Yaakov’s dream serves as the backdrop to what would become his vocation.
He had spent many decades quietly receiving from his father, and then
added fourteen years of study in the yeshiva of Ever, during which he did
not lay down to sleep. Involvement in mundane matters was completely
foreign to him; he achieved a supernal holiness that merited his station
as the bechir he-avos, the “choicest” of the forefathers, the one
whose name would be lent to the nation that would descend from him. He set
off for Choron, for charono shel olam, the wrath of an unfriendly
world. He “encountered” the special place where he would experience the
vision of the ladder. Chazal tell us that this encounter meant that he
sought to travel on, to escape, but the place itself opposed him like a
solid wall blocking him. What they mean is that he contemplated his task
to bring kedushah to the world of reshus – and was stymied.
All the emptiness and vacuousness of ordinary life stood as a huge
obstacle before him. Where was the opening in this formidable wall? Where
could one enter it in a meaningful manner?
Hashem showed him an image that captured the essence of his task, and
addressed the fear that plagued him. All the occupations and events of
the world of reshus are like the ladder, planted firmly in the
ground, and reaching the Heavens themselves. Through the world of
reshus – more accurately, specifically through the world of
reshus! – a Jew can reach the greatest heights of spirituality. (In
order to succeed, however, Man must take pains while navigating that world
to keep his head – like the ladder – always in the Heavens.)
Yaakov says it all upon awakening. “There is in fact Godliness in this
place! I did not know it! I did not realize how much could be spiritually
accomplished through the world of the mundane and ordinary.” Yaakov
then “picked up his feet” and continued eastward. He had absorbed the
lesson of the ladder. He learned how to raise up the things closest to
earthliness, and direct them to a higher place.
He continues on to the well, the source of the flow that sustains all
like – an allusion to the sefirah of yesod, which provides
the main flow of Divine influence. The well was sealed up by the weight
of the stone, the yetzer hora, the evil inclination that would not
yield for those gathered around. Three flocks waited expectantly,
signifying the three divisions of human activity: mitzvah,
prohibition, reshus. The shepherds would band together and remove
the stone. The Torah hints at an important strategy. It is not within
our individual power to tame all the yetzer hora we must face in
our lives. We need the strength of the tzibbur, the collective.
(R. Noach of Lechovitz used to say that ten Jews constitute a
minyan, in a superficial sense. If those same Jews bind their
souls together, they become a minyan in a deeper, more profound
sense.) Creating kedushah is a task for the group, the collective.
The Torah alludes to this when it instructs “the entire congregation of
Bnei Yisrael” in the mitzvah of kedoshim tee’yu, you
shall be holy. Success in the avodah of generating holiness
requires the work of the tzibbur.
The rest is commentary. Yaakov would continue the process of “picking
up” and raising up all material things in his path as he married, raised
a family, and contended with Lavan – elevating and sanctifying all he
1 Based on Nesivos Shalom, pgs. 182-186
2 Midos here do not mean personality traits, in the sense that
the Mussar teachers use the word. Rather, they are synonymous with
the sefiros. In a sense, the sefiros, which are different
ways in which the Divine Will is shaped into different consequences and
results, represent the “personality traits” as it were of Hashem – the way
in which His inner Will expresses itself in different predictable
3 Yosef, Moshe, Aharon, and Dovid
4 Reshus in this sense means non-mandatory, or
optional. Before Klal Yisrael accepted the practice of regarding
maariv is a fixed obligation, it was an exercise in voluntarism, up
to each individual to decide if he wanted to daven it or not.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org