Vayetzei: What Makes a Hero?


The Zohar’s story about Abraham, Rashi’s story about Jacob, and the Rebbe’s story about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. What do the stories have in common? And what was the common denominator which made them eternal Jewish heroes?

Lesson Contents:

A. The Lost Glory 

The first line of this week’s Parsha draws curious emphasis to the fact that Jacob left Beer-Sheba. As the Midrash explains, this is to point out that the city lost its glow upon the exit of the tzaddik (Source 1-2).

The Rebbe cites this Midrash as Rashi quotes it, and asks the famous question: weren’t Isaac and Rebecca still there?

One answer can be culled from the Midrash — the city lost some of its glory but not all of it (Source 3) — but that won’t fit with Rashi, who states quite clearly that the city lost all its glory.

B. Young and Involved

The Rebbe proposes the following explanation: Rashi points out just a few sentences later that Isaac was blind and elderly. This contains the answer: Isaac was no longer able to influence his surroundings, and therefore Jacob — not his father — was considered the city’s glory.

C. Noah’s Overlap

The Rebbe makes a similar point in a different talk:

Rashi and the Zohar both state that Noah would be considered unremarkable during Abraham’s generation. The question is asked: They did live in the same generation! (Source 4-7)

The Rebbe presents a straightforward answer: The generation which is considered “Abraham’s generation” begins only when he turns 75 — when he began spreading G-d’s name in earnest. His generation isn’t merely a reference to when he is alive; it is when he makes an impact.

D. Sweeping Absolution?

In one final talk, the Rebbe makes the same point about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. 

Rabbi Shimon famously said that he could absolve the entire world of G-d’s judgement (Source 8).

But, the Rebbe asks, what purpose does that serve? The judgements are given for good reason!

The answer reflects the same point: Rabbi Shimon obviously didn’t just make such broad sweeping absolutions. Rather, he taught people to change their ways — through studying the inner dimension of Torah — and thereby absolved them of G-d’s judgment. In other words, Rabbi Shimon isn’t to be understood as simply doing magical absolutions; rather, he made a genuine influence on people — and thereby achieved his goal.

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