This week opens with a pivotal journey: “And Yaakov went out from Beer Sheva and went towards Haran.” He is leaving the spiritual ambience of the holy land, and the shelter of his home, to cross the border, headed to his uncle’s house in Haran.
The Torah provides two explanations for the name Beer Sheva: a) because of the oath when Avraham made a covenant with Avimelech; b) because of the seventh well dug after Yitzhak’s peace treaty with Avimelech. Both explanations for the name Beer Sheva signify a state of tranquility. The name of the city Haran indicates the opposite — fierce anger (charon af) of the world.
Moving from Beer Sheva to Haran, therefore, is also a metaphorical journey from a place of peacefulness and sanctity into a lowly corrupt environment. On the surface level, the verses relate an individual, feeling insignificant in a giant world; on a mystical level, it’s the journey the soul takes into a “world of falsehood,” and a foreshadowing of the long exile his descendants, the Jewish people, will endure away from their homeland.
And within these verses, we find some fundamental messages for success.
First action sets the tone
As he reaches the border of Israel, he finds a place to camp. “He arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed (them) around his head, and he lay down.”
This unusual wording of “arrived” shares a common root with the word meaning to entreat or to pray (Jeremiah 7:16), leading the commentaries to explain how these words subtly communicate what he did when he first arrived — he prayed. The Talmud further notes that this hints at the origin of establishing a fixed time for evening prayer.
Upon arriving, perhaps Yaakov should have unloaded and relaxed. Or perhaps he should have prepared for the new stage in life, investigating the people or the local customs, fashions and so forth. Yet, despite all apprehension and unfamiliarity, his first step was to pause, reflect and pray.
Here lies the first instruction: When we first arrive from a long journey, or are about to encounter a big challenge, the first action should be to pray — to acknowledge that hard work, talent, and ingenuity will go so far; in the end, it’s the assistance from above that determines our success.
As every new day arrives, this first gesture and attitude sets the tone.
The next instruction is gleaned from placing stones around his head. What exactly is the Torah conveying with such a peculiar image? Rashi, the more literal commentary, states that Yaakov was protecting himself from wild animals. But if he was simply concerned about physical danger, why did he place the stones only around his head — why not the rest of his body?
The deeper message is the notion of “protecting your head”: Yaakov traveled to Haran knowing the place and people would be far different from the purity of his home. To sin there would be easier than to be virtuous. He would work for Laban the Aramite, and his integrity would be tested. Even along the road there were “wild animals.” Placing stones around his head was a personal signal that nothing and nobody was going to affect his head. (And if his head was straight, so his feet would carry him to where he needed to go.)
The broader application of protecting your head: People pay close attention to the upkeep of their body, or their physical presentation, while giving little consideration to what they fill their mind with. Yet the mind can be like a wild galloping horse, carrying the rider through muddy waters and into dark places. (This is especially relevant nowadays with the abundance of attractive entertainment, the flooding of social media and easy distractions.)
Over the generations, establishing fixed times for Torah study in one’s schedule — regardless of one’s intellectual level or interest — helps refine the mind and keep it sharp. This aspect of mental upkeep through study merges with spiritual health.
The above image — “placing stones around his head” — signifies more than just filtering, or nurturing our intellect; it conveys how maintaining wisdom and clarity is dependent on a solid and unbendable commitment to what we hold dear.
Like Yaakov, we will inevitably face tests of whether we will influence or be influenced, whether we will keep our vision alive or settle for a less idealistic or inspired life. True happiness and success, especially in difficult environments, comes from the ability to keep alive memories (or visualization) of a more cherished environment, of those people who remain connected to us beyond any physical barriers — and to bring our deepest values to the forefront of our consciousness.