The sophisticated man-made environment of contemporary urban civilization interposes between ourselves and nature, which is mostly experienced through the windows of buildings, cars, trains and planes or filtered via TV and computer screens. The consumerist economy encourages people to take whatever they can for themselves without worrying about the Earth or the other living animals, birds, fish, insects, trees and plants with whom we share it.
But the House Jacob built is founded on peace and harmony not only within the human community but also between that community and the surrounding natural world. This will be the central theme of this and the coming segments of this Course.
To build this House required intimate knowledge of the world of nature and tender sensitivity towards its most vulnerable creatures. Jacob acquired this knowledge and sensitivity in the twenty years he worked as Laban's shepherd.
At the end of the twenty years, Jacob summed up his time working for Laban:
"This twenty years that I have been with you, your sheep and your goats did not miscarry, and I did not eat the rams of your flocks. I never brought you a predator-savaged animal. If your animals were taken by predators, I bore the loss: you asked it from my hand. Whatever was stolen by day or by night I paid. By day the burning dryness consumed me and the bitter frost at night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. This is the story of my twenty years in your house. I served you for fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed our agreed conditions for my wages ten times"
Laban played the good uncle who was showing his penniless nephew the greatest magnanimity and kindness in permitting him to work for him. In reality Laban stood only to gain. This was because of Jacob's scrupulous integrity: he was the exemplar of Mishpat, justice and fairness. Laban took full advantage of it.
When Jacob first arrived, Laban had only his daughter Rachel to take care of his sheep -- hardly the proper thing since most of the other shepherds were men. Jacob stepped in as manager of Laban's entire flock, caring for them most conscientiously. When his time was up Jacob could have simply handed Laban back the same number of sheep as he received. Instead he made sure that the flocks increased. "Your sheep and your goats did not miscarry."
According to the old shepherds' maxim, "The girls are for milk and the boys for meat." Out in the hills Jacob could easily have enjoyed barbecued lamb whenever he wished without Laban ever knowing. But Jacob would never take anything that was not his. "I did not eat the rams of your flocks".
Under Torah law Jacob was technically a Shomer Sachar ("paid guard"), who is liable for theft and loss (since these might result from his own negligence), but is exempt from liability for for losses due to circumstances beyond his control such as an attack of predators. Even so, Jacob took it upon himself to pay for such losses: "I never brought you a predator-savaged animal. If your animals were taken by predators, I bore the loss...."
Jacob graphically depicted his far-from-romantic life outdoors: "By day the burning dryness consumed me and the bitter frost at night, and my sleep fled from my eyes." In the twenty years he worked as Laban's shepherd Jacob must have come to know every single nook and cranny and every grazing and watering spot in the surrounding hills. He must have become an expert in every aspect of nature, wildlife, climate, the skies and the stars. He also became an expert animal breeder.
In his argument with Laban, Jacob says: "This is my twenty years in your house. I served you for fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed our agreed conditions for my wages ten times."
Jacob was referring to the deal he made with Laban so that he should not return home completely empty-handed after all his work. It was after the birth of his eleventh son, Joseph, that Jacob asked Laban's leave to go home. Laban well understood Jacob's value to him and did not want to let him go so fast. Again playing the magnanimous father-in-law, Laban said: "If I have found favor in your eyes, I have divined the truth: HaVaYaH has blessed me because of you. And he said, Specify your reward from me, and I will give it." (Genesis 30:27-8).
Jacob did not wish to take anything from Laban. Whatever he took he wanted to earn through his own efforts. He therefore struck what he thought was a deal with Laban -- only Laban kept changing the conditions.
In essence the deal was that Laban would remove all the spotted or patched sheep and goats from the flock. Jacob would continue tending the remainder, and from now on any spotted or patched lambs and goats that were born would be his (Genesis 30:31-2). Laban zealously removed from the flock every single animal that had any kind of spot or patch and took them well away from Jacob.
Jacob then carried out the most amazing feat of kabbalistic genetic engineering:
"Jacob took sticks of moist poplar, almond and plain and peeled white stripes in them, laying bare the white in the sticks. He set up the rods that he had peeled in the water-channels in the drinking troughs where the flocks came to drink. The rods were facing the flocks and they became heated when they came to drink. The flock were in heat facing the sticks and the flock gave birth to kids that were striped at the ankles, spotted and patched...." (Genesis 30:37ff.).
The deep kabbalistic mysteries involved in Jacob's choice of these particular species of trees and other aspects of his feat are beyond the scope of this work. What is obvious is that he fully grasped the power of visual stimuli not simply to influence the mind but to evoke actual physical responses.
There is an old belief that striking features of a person seen by the man and/or woman prior to intimacy can come out in the child they conceive. Some may find it hard to accept this literally, yet no-one can deny the power of visual stimuli to affect people's behavior. It is precisely because of this that billions are spent on promotion and advertising to sell products and manipulate the public in other ways.
One of the greatest tragedies in today's sophisticated world is that those controlling the media know exactly how to exploit visual stimuli to make people keep buying and keep watching the TV and movies, yet they willfully blind themselves to the horrendous social and cultural effects of the constant diet of violence, unashamed sexuality and other negative images they provide. In the words of the Rabbis: "The eye sees, the heart desires and the body sins" (Rashi on Numbers 15:39).
A simple, practical lesson to be drawn from Jacob's breeding feat is the importance of surrounding ourselves with images and symbols that have the power to "breed" and evoke positive, constructive, creative, intelligent and sensitive behaviors. Judaism has a wealth of such symbols and images, including the Magen David (Star of David), Tablets of Stone, Torah Scroll, Shabbat lights, Chanukah Lamp, Tzitzit, Tefilin, the Temple building and its vessels (the Ark, Cherubs, Candelabrum, Incense Altar, Showbread Table, etc.) and the letters of the Aleph-Beit.
The power of vision is associated with holistic Chokhmah-Wisdom. Hearing, on the other hand, is associated with Binah-Understanding. Not only was Jacob a supreme sage when it came to harnessing the power of vision. He was also a master musician.
He had to be. He was the father of Levi, whose descendants, the Levites, made up the magnificent choir that chanted daily during the Temple rituals to the accompaniment of a full orchestra. Jacob was also the ancestor of David, messianic king and "sweet singer of Israel", who composed the Book of Psalms, which sings the inner music of the soul and of all creation.
According to tradition, during the sleepless nights he spent working for Laban, Jacob kept himself awake by singing the fifteen "Songs of Ascent" -- Psalms 120-34 (Bereishit Rabbah 68:11). These fifteen Psalms correspond to the fifteen steps leading up to the main Temple Courtyard. This need not be taken to mean that Jacob sang the text of these Psalms exactly as we have it today, which is impossible since some of them are specifically ascribed to David and Solomon, while others refer to events in later Jewish history, such as the redemption from the Babylonian exile (Psalm 126).
What this Midrash suggests is that in these years of toil and struggle Jacob fortified himself with absolute faith and trust in God and with longing and yearning to ascend His holy mountain and build His House, as expressed repeatedly in these Psalms.
In the same way that visual images have awesome power to breed actual behavior, so sound and music have the power to move and stir the heart and inspire us to the highest levels of achievement.
Speaking of Jacob, the master musician, Rebbe Nachman writes:
Every shepherd has his own unique melody according to the herbs and grasses in the place where he pastures his sheep. Different animals eat different kinds of grasses. Shepherds do not always pasture their flocks in the same place. The shepherd's melody varies according to the place where he pastures his flocks and the herbs and grasses growing there. For every plant and every blade of grass has its own song. It is from the song of the grass that the shepherd gets his song.
This is why it says: "And Ada gave birth to Yaval: he was the father of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds. And the name of his brother was Yuval: he was the father of all who play the lyre and pipe" (Genesis 4:20-1). For as soon as people took up tending herds, musical instruments came into the world. In the same way, King David (peace be upon him), who was "skilled in music" (Samuel I, 16:18), was a shepherd. Indeed we find that all the founding fathers had flocks.
"From the corner of the earth we hear songs" (Isaiah 24:16). Melodies and songs come from the "corner of the earth"! For it is from the herbs that grow in the earth that music is made. Indeed it is the shepherd's musical skill that puts strength into the herbs and grasses, providing the animals with their food. This is why it says: "The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of singing has come!" (Song of Songs 2:12). This means that the plants and flowers grow in the land because of the relevant songs and melodies. It is through his songs and melodies that the shepherd puts strength into the herbs and grasses, providing pasture for the animals.
These songs and melodies are of benefit to the shepherd himself. Being constantly surrounded by animals, the shepherd could easily descend from the human level to that of an animal. But his songs and melody save him from this. For song refines the soul, elevating the human being above animalistic tendencies. Music has the power to refine and elevate the human soul, and this is why the shepherd's melodies save him from falling to the level of an animal.
Likutey Moharan II:63
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