One of my earliest memories as a child is awakening suddenly in the middle of the night, being brought by my parents out of the house, waiting in the car, and watching as the fire engines pulled up to our home. The scare was short-lived as the firemen discovered the source of the smoke in our home. The chimney of our fireplace, which was in use at the time, had been somewhat blocked by birds’ nests, unbeknownst to us. The result was that the smoke had nowhere to go, and began to filter into our home, creating a potentially dangerous situation. The nests were summarily cleared, and our home once again returned to being its usual warm and smoke-free environment.
Recently, in pondering this event, I realized that it holds a powerful lesson for a healthy approach to ruchniyus.
Many of us are searching for something that will inspire us in our service of Hashem, something that we and our children can latch onto. In the face of the challenges that we as a community are confronting, the imperative to discover that inspiration becomes all the more pressing. We are looking for that fire that will warm our homes, filling up our lives and the lives of our families.
There are times when we believe we may have discovered that source of spiritual energy. Whether it is an inspiring Torah idea we have heard in a shiur, or it is a moving story that has caused us to stop and think, our new discovery can sometimes propel us forward and become a potential theme in our lives. We may often wish to share this idea with our spouse, with our children, and with others, and we sincerely attempt to live with the newfound knowledge we have acquired.
Suddenly, though, we can find ourselves encountering resistance. Here we are, trying to grow, trying to maintain the fire we have discovered, trying to hold on to that inspiration we have found, and others may not be as excited as we. We may even find our own fire starting to burn out, as we watch the smoke start to fill our lives. What is it exactly that serves as the birds’ nests in the nimshal, and how do we clear them out so our inspiration can continue to burn brightly, remaining uncompromised?
To learn the secret to maintaining inspiration, we need to look to our avos hakedoshim for their personal example.
Yakov Avinu had been commanded by Hashem to gather his family and all of his possessions in order to return to Eretz Yisrael and begin the destiny of the Jewish people there. The promises Hashem had made to him years before, as he ran from his home toward Charan, would now begin to be fulfilled. He could also already see the beginning of the fulfillment of the brachos his father had given him, with the family he now had and the wealth he had amassed.
Yakov’s return was a time of intense inspiration, as Rashi tells us (Bereshis 31:3), Hashem had promised that He would rest His Shechina on Yakov at this time. And at that very moment of his return, he was faced with powerful resistance in the form of Esav, who came out to greet his homecoming with four hundred armed men.
It is remarkably instructive to follow Yakov Avinu’s approach to his brother’s opposition. Firstly, if we look carefully at his tefillah at this perilous moment, we discover the surprising fact that he does not try to bypass nor deny his feelings, but rather, he is quite open and honest with Hashem about the emotions he is experiencing. He is not ashamed to admit that he is afraid of Esav, despite Hashem’s promise of protection (See Rashi, Bereshis 28:15).
It is also important to note that based on Hashem’s promise, Yakov could easily have decided to fight Esav and could have expected a miraculous victory. Yet, he completely gives himself over to the hand of Hashem, not even relying on any merits of his own to save himself. Furthermore,it seems that Yakov completely surrenders to Esav, giving him a lavish gift, and bowing to him seven times. Paradoxically, Yakov’s seeming surrender earns him a complete victory to the point that not only does Esav no longer wish to fight, he even offers to accompany him and protect him.
Yakov’s approach is a profound lesson in addressing the resistance we often encounter when we are in the process of spiritual growth. The fire of our inspiration is burning within us, yet there is something blocking the airflow, creating threatening smoke and opposition.
The first step is to use Yakov’s strategy and acknowledge the resistance, which sometimes can manifest as a fear similar to Yakov’s. We must be honest with ourselves and Hashem, even as we are aware that He is only interested in our best spiritual welfare. This could be comparable to the recognition that there is a bird’s nest preventing proper air circulation.
The second step is to completely surrender ourselves to Hashem, not depending on ourselves in any way – whether it is our spiritual merits or our own hishtadlus. We turn to Him and ask Him for guidance. This could be comparable to calling the fire department, as the resistance we have encountered is too challenging to manage on our own.
At this point, the resistance that we have faced is released. Counterintuitively, this occurs through our seeming submission, and we find ourselves watching as Hashem transforms the conflict into peace, much as Yakov’s submission to Esav transformed the latter’s anger into love. Our willingness to acknowledge the resistance and to surrender to it takes the air out of the balloon, giving us the emotional space to redouble our spiritual efforts. The bird’s nest is removed, and the airflow is once again restored, as the flame of inspiration again receives the life-giving oxygen it needs to continue to burn inside of us.