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Yaakov's Willpower

Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Bereishit, 29:10: “And it was, when Yaakov saw Rachel, daughter of Lavan, his mother’s brother, and the flock of Lavan his mother’s brother, Yaakov came forward and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well and watered the sheep of Lavan, his mother’s brother.”
Rashi, 29:10: Dh: And Yaakov came forward and rolled: “Like a man who is removing a lid from a bottle, [this is to show] that he had great strength.”

Upon Yaakov’s arrival in a place called Paddan Aram, the Torah relates the incident where Yaakov meets shepherds how have congregated around a well, where all the flocks were given to drink. A large rock was on top of this well and it was so heavy that it could not be moved until all the shepherds were gathered there so they could collectively remove it and then replace it. When Yaakov sees his cousin, Rachel approaching, he quickly removes the rock from Yaakov from the well by himself and gave water to the sheep that Rachel was watching. Rashi notes that Yaakov removed the rock as easily as one would remove a cork from a bottle, and that this demonstrates Yaakov’s strength.

A number of questions arise from a simple reading of this episode: Firstly, why should the Torah go to such lengths to demonstrate Yaakov’s physical strength when physical strength is not a measure of righteousness? Secondly, this story seems to give rise to a contradiction with a piece of Talmud. The Talmud recounts the story of how Reish Lakish was initially a bandit of great strength, but when he suddenly repented, he immediately lost his strength because he had accepted upon himself the yoke of Torah.1 This indicates that the deep involvement in Torah learning that is necessary to accept upon oneself the yoke of Torah leads to physical weakness. Yet we know that Yaakov had just come from learning non-stop for fourteen years without even sleeping, and he certainly had accepted upon himself the yoke of Torah, nevertheless he had superhuman strength.

The key to answering these questions is found in one of the prayers that we say in the special prayer for rain that is said when we begin to request rain on Shemini Atzeret (known as Tefillat Geshem). In the prayer, we ask God to give us rain in the merit of righteous actions of our ancestors. The author of this prayer includes the story of how Yaakov removed the rock from the well. If Yaakov’s action was merely a reflection of great physical strength, then why would that serve as a source of merit for his descendants? The answer is in the exact words of the prayer: “He concentrated his heart and rolled off the stone.” This teaches us that it was not Yaakov’s upper body strength that enabled him to move the rock, rather it was the ‘concentration of his heart’. This means that it was Yaakov’s motivation to move the stone by virtue of his single-mindedness of purpose to perform an act of kindness for Rachel, that enabled him to do so. It is this dedication to doing kindness that serves as a great source of merit to Yaakov’s descendants.

This demonstrates that when one is driven by a goal, he can accomplish that which is normally beyond his capacity. The shepherds were unable to move the rock because it was not so important to them. Yaakov, in contrast, so desired to help Rachel, that he summoned hidden power to move the rock. This also enables us answer the contradiction between this account of Yaakov’s strength and the Talmud's account of Reish Lakish and its assertion that learning Torah weakens a person: In areas that are important to the Torah scholar, he can summon great strength. There are many accounts of great Torah scholars who were physically very frail, yet they could muster seemingly superhuman strength to learn Torah with great intensity for extended periods of time. However, in areas that are not important to them, they are unable to muster much strength, simply because they are not motivated in those areas. Accordingly, when the Talmud says that taking on the yoke of Torah weakens a person it means that his priorities change, so that in areas that are unrelated to spirituality, he is unmotivated to exert himself. Yet at the same time, in areas related to spirituality he can show incredible strength. So too, Yaakov could exert great energy in areas that were important to him, which included Torah learning, and doing kindness. Accordingly, he was able to summon great strength to help Rachel.

The principle is highly relevant to our lives: The key to success in all areas is motivation. People that are driven to make a lot of money, can devote incredible amounts of time and energy to fulfil their goals, and in the spiritual realm, people who are driven to become Torah Scholars can find great wellsprings of strength to learn Torah. The lesson is to develop the correct motivations through learning about what the Torah values, internalizing those lessons through work on self-growth and through external actions.

May we merit to emulate our Patriarch, Yaakov’s true source of strength.

The ideas in this Dvar Torah are largely based on Darchei Mussar, Vayetsei, p.65 and Sichos Mussar, p.248.

  1. Bava Metsia, 84.

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