Stop stepping on me! (Shabbos 61)

Yaakov had been working for Lavan for 14 years, seven for each of his daughters.  After Rachel gave birth to Yosef, Yaakov said to Lavan, “Give me leave to go back to my own homeland. Give me my wives and my children, for whom I have served you, that I may go; for well you know what services I have rendered you.” But Lavan said to him, “If you will indulge me, I have learned by divination that Hashem has blessed me on your account. Name the wages due from me, and I will pay you.”

And Yaakov said, “Pay me nothing! If you will do this thing for me, I will again pasture and keep your flocks: let me pass through your whole flock today, removing from there every speckled and spotted animal—every dark-coloured sheep and every spotted and speckled goat shall be my wages. In the future when you go over my wages, let my honesty toward you testify for me: if there are among my goats any that are not speckled or spotted or any sheep that are not dark-coloured, they got there by theft.” And Lavan said, “Very well, let it be as you say.”

That day, however, Lavan removed the streaked and spotted he-goats and all the speckled and spotted she-goats—every one that had white on it—and all the dark-coloured sheep, and left them in the charge of his sons. And he put a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Yaakov, while Yaakov was pasturing the rest of Lavan’s flock.

Yaakov then took fresh shoots of poplar, and of almond and plane, and peeled white stripes in them, laying bare the white of the shoots. The rods that he had peeled he set up in front of the goats in the troughs, the water receptacles, that the goats came to drink from. Their mating occurred when they came to drink, and as the goats mated by the rods, the goats brought forth streaked, speckled, and spotted young. But Yaakov dealt separately with the sheep; he made these animals face the streaked or wholly dark-coloured animals in Lavan’s flock.

And so he produced special flocks for himself, which he did not put with Lavan’s flocks. Moreover, when the sturdier animals were mating, Yaakov would place the rods in the troughs, in full view of the animals, so that they mated by the rods; but with the feebler animals he would not place them there. Thus the feeble ones went to Lavan and the sturdy to Yaakov.

The Torah concludes the episode by telling us that Yaakov “grew exceedingly prosperous, and came to own large flocks, maidservants and menservants, camels and donkeys.”

אֲמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: כִּתְפִילִּין כָּךְ מִנְעָלִין. מַה תְּפִילִּין בִּשְׂמֹאל, אַף מִנְעָלִין בִּשְׂמֹאל. מֵיתִיבִי: כְּשֶׁהוּא נוֹעֵל — נוֹעֵל שֶׁל יָמִין וְאַחַר כָּךְ נוֹעֵל שֶׁל שְׂמֹאל! אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן בַּר יִצְחָק: יְרֵא שָׁמַיִם יוֹצֵא יְדֵי שְׁתֵּיהֶן. וּמַנּוּ? — מָר בְּרֵיהּ דְּרַבְנָא. הֵיכִי עָבֵיד? — סָיֵים דְּיַמִּינֵיהּ וְלָא קָטַר, וְסָיֵים דִּשְׂמָאלֵיהּ וְקָטַר, וַהֲדַר קָטַר דְּיַמִּינֵיהּ.
וסיים דשמאליה וקטר – אומר ריב”א דדוקא לענין קשירה הוא דחשיבא של שמאל טפי משום דחשיבות תפילין הוא בקשירה

Rabbi Yocḥanan said: Just as one dons tefillin, so too, one puts on shoes. Just as tefillin are placed on the left arm, so too, when putting on shoes one begins with the left foot. They raised an objection: ‘When one puts on his shoes, he puts on the right shoe first and afterward puts on the left shoe.’ Rav Nacḥman bar Yitzcḥak said: And one who fears Heaven fulfills both opinions. And who is this person? Mar, son of Rabbana. How does he conduct himself? He puts on his right shoe and does not tie the laces. And then he puts on his left shoe and ties it, and then afterward ties the laces of his right shoe.
Tosfos: “He puts on his left shoe and ties it” – Riva says that regarding tying, specifically, the left is important, because the importance of tefillin is in their tying.

What is the connection between putting your shoes on and donning tefillin?  Not a lot.  Practically speaking, the poskim (legal codifiers) are divided on the question of whether you need be concerned about which shoe to put on or tie first.  The Maharal concludes that you should generally follow the same pattern, but if you happened to pick up the other and you’re in a hurry, you should think of it as a pious practice, rather than a strict law.

The Meiri explains the practice beautifully: “Torah scholars direct all their actions towards a single purpose.  Even when they are occupied with their physical needs, they direct their hearts to focus upon their service of Hashem.”

When an individual who is spiritually alert thinks about the act of tying, the first idea that springs to mind is the act of tying tefillin.  Whenever they so much as tie their shoelaces, they’re thinking about tefillin.  For those of us not on that level, our Sages wrote a formula that would make us more spiritually aware.  Now whenever we put our shoes on, we think about tefillin.  There really is very little connection between the two.  But now, the simplest act has been infused with spiritual meaning.

The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch begins his popular Code of Jewish Law with the declaration, “I place Hashem before me constantly: This is the fundamental rule of the Torah.”  If you live by that teaching, every act becomes an opportunity to strengthen your bond with Heaven.  From head to toe, even the most mundane conduct becomes a moment of deep spiritual significance.  The first reason for tying your shoe is in order to be able to walk to shul to pray.  Thus, the shoe-tying itself has become a vehicle for spirituality.

When you eat breakfast, why are you eating?  To have energy to serve Hashem.  When you go to the office, why are working so hard?  To earn a livelihood and have the means to serve Hashem and give tzedakah.  As you place your head on your pillow at the end of the day, a prayer is recited.  ‘I hereby entrust my soul to You to refresh it and grant me the energy to face another day and serve You.’  Even during periods of rest and relaxation, thinking about God can transform the entire experience.

While the account of Yaakov’s sheep-breeding appears to be quite mundane, according to the Zohar (1:161), much more was happening beyond the surface.  Prior to the giving of the Torah, we did not have tefillin.  Nevertheless, our patriarchs and matriarchs fulfilled every letter of the Law.  They may not have done so literally, but they were able to produce the same spiritual feats even without the tools.  Thus, while Yaakov was engaged in simple farming activity, he was deeply engrossed in his spiritual pursuits.  For our forefather, these weren’t mere sticks and sheep, these were vehicles for the service of the Almighty, which achieved the mitzvah of tefillin.

In the messianic era, our Sages say, the pavement will turn to human beings and ask, ‘Who gave you the right to tread upon me and not think about Torah?’  Every step of your day contains the potential for spirituality.  May you transform even the most mundane actions into essential elements of your Divine mission, and become as prosperous as Yaakov, physically, materially, and spiritually!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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