by Rabbi Simon Jacobson
The Power of an Over 3600 Year-Old Tremble
A human shudder is mentioned three times in the Torah (and several more times in Tanach):
The first – in this week’s Torah portion: Isaac shuddered a great, very great, shudder when Esau approached Isaac to receive the blessing that Jacob had already “stolen” (Genesis 27:33).
The tribes shuddered when they discovered the money planted in their sacks (Genesis 42:28). “What is this that G-d is doing to us?” they asked with sinking hearts as they realized that they were being held accountable for the blood of their brother Joseph whom they sold into slavery.
At Sinai – the people in the camp shuddered (Exodus 19:16). Indeed, the entire mountain shuddered violently (19:18).
The sages actually connect these three shudders: According to Rabbi Judah (Zohar I 144b) Jacob’s anguish over the loss of Joseph was a punishment for causing his father Isaac to shudder.
The Midrash (Ohr Ha’afeilah in manuscript) says that due to Isaac’s shudder his children shuddered at Sinai.
What connection is there between these three events?
Every shudder reflects a serious disturbance. When we become aware that things are not aligned we shudder.
Our universe in general and each person individually, is dichotomous in nature – comprised of matter and spirit, body and soul – two forces driven in opposite directions. The battle between matter and spirit creates serious turbulence, which lies at the root of all existential loneliness and despair – more than enough reason to shudder.
However this dissonance is not always apparent.
The story of Jacob and Esau reflects the struggle of life itself resulting from the tension between matter and spirit. The twin brothers Jacob and Esau embody two personalities and two nations that are odds with each other from their moment of conception (in Rebecca’s womb): “Two nations are in your womb. Two governments will separate from inside you. The upper hand will go from one nation to the other.”
Esau and Jacob represent two forces in each of our lives and in the world as a whole: Esau, the “skilled hunter, a man of the field,” symbolizes the body, the material world, whose untamed elements need to be conquered. Jacob, the “wholesome man, who dwells in the tents,” embodies the soul, the spiritual world. Initially these two worlds do not co-exist. Matter and spirit are at war with each other. “When one rises the other falls.”
In mystical terms the struggle between Jacob and Esau represents the process called Avodat habirurim: Everything in our material existence contains Divine “sparks,” i.e. spiritual energy, and we are charged with the mission to extricate, redeem and elevate these sparks, to uncover the spiritual opportunity embedded in every experience, and thereby refine the material universe and transform it into its true purpose: a vehicle for spiritual expression.
Originally, Esau was to be Jacob’s partner in the endeavor to redeem the Divine “sparks.” Esau’s warrior was meant to tame the crass elements of materialism and shaping them into vehicles of the sublime. But the material Esau first needs the spiritual Jacob for direction and focus. To gain the material blessings that Isaac had designated for Esau, Jacob garbs himself in Esau’s clothes, to redeem the powerful energy within matter.
After Jacob camouflaged as Esau receives Isaac’s blessings, Esau returns from his hunt in the field and presents himself before his father Isaac. As Esau enters Isaac’s presence, Isaac senses the profound dissonance between matter and spirit, between Esau and Jacob. And he shudders violently: Something is wrong, terribly wrong.
What exactly caused Isaac to be seized with such a violent shudder?
One opinion is that Isaac shuddered when he realized that Esau was not who Isaac thought he was: Isaac “saw Gehennom [hell] open beneath him” (Rashi – from Tanchuma Brocho 1. Zohar ibid). According to this opinion, Jacob was not punished for this shudder (see Ohr HaChama Zohar ibid). A second opinion is that Jacob was also the cause of his shudder. So though G-d agreed that Jacob should receive the blessings, but because he caused his father such pain (i.e. he made him aware of the deep discord), Jacob would later be affected in turn with the loss of Joseph.
Joseph being sold by his brothers was another manifestation of the schism between matter and spirit.
And finally, Isaac’s shudder caused the Jewish people to shudder as they stood at Sinai. The Psalmist writes: “From heaven You caused sentence to be heard, the earth feared and was still” (Psalms 76:9). Explains the Talmud (Shabbas 88a), that until Sinai “the earth feared” because the universe’s material existence was tenuous without its connection to its spiritual purpose. When this connection was established at Sinai the earth “was still.”
It was therefore quite appropriate that standing before Sinai “the people in the camp – as well as the mountain – shuddered.” [Perhaps the mountain “shuddered violently” because the people were after all children of Jacob, and thus not quite distant from their spiritual calling. By contrast, the mountain was very much part of the material “earth” which stood in fear.]
Yet, even after the stillness affected by Sinai the battle rages on, but now we are armed with the formal tools to bridge Esau’s matter with Jacob’s spirit.
Over 3600 years ago our grandfather Isaac shuddered a violent shudder. He shuddered for the misalignment of the universe. He shuddered for every painful experience that would take place over the ages. He shuddered when he saw the terrible consequences of the battles between Esau and Jacob – the wars that would be waged between these two global powers, two forces in history – Rome and Jerusalem.
He shuddered as he realized how difficult, how enormously painful the struggle would be throughout history between the forces of matter and the forces of spirit.
His shudder continued to reverberate throughout the eons.
But the shudder of a Tzaddik is not mere fear. It absorbs some of the shock and pain – making it easier for us to weave our way through the challenges.
And weave we did. Through all the havoc, persecutions and expulsions, we stand today at the threshold of a new world: A world which will finally be “still” – at peace with itself, with its neighbors, and above all – with its Divine purpose.
Some shudders have such power.