And Yaakov made a vow, saying, “If G-d will be with me, and will guard me on this path on which I am going; and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear; and I will return safely to my father’s home….” [Beresheet 28:20,21]
While running away from his incensed brother, Esav, Yaakov Avinu fell asleep on the spot where the Holy Temple (Beit Hamikdash) was to be built hundreds of years later. He experienced a prophetic vision known to all as the “Ladder Dream,” wherein Hashem promised that not only would He protect him during his exile in Lavan’s home, but He also promised that Yaakov would become the patriarch of a great family — the base unit of the Chosen People. Upon awakening, he declared the place on which he slept to be “holy ground” and vowed to return and build a Sanctuary to Hashem on the very place where he saw the ladder reach the heavens — so long as Hashem provided him with “some bread to eat and some clothing to wear.”
The great Sage, Harav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, better known as the Brisker Rav, once visited the city of Minsk. Many of the townspeople excitedly visited the esteemed guest to ask questions of Jewish law, advice on life issues such as marriage and career, or to get a blessing from the world-renowned Torah giant. Among those who came was a former student of the Rav who had left the yeshivah world to venture into the world of business. The Rav greeted him enthusiastically and warmly inquired, “How are you doing?” The young man was flattered by the Rav’s interest and he replied, “Baruch Hashem, I have a good business and a good partner. The business is growing every day.”
The Rav did not react. He continued to greet others who had waited to see him, as his former student watched in awe, marveling at the Rav’s ability to make each person feel important. The Rav surprised the young man when he again asked, “How are you doing?” Although taken aback, the man patiently answered as if he had not already replied once before. And again, although the inquiry seemed so warm and caring, there was no comment or reaction forthcoming from his former teacher, the Brisker Rav.
When the Rav asked a third time, “How are you doing?” the student humbly replied, “Rabbi, how come you keep asking me the same question and over and over?” The Rav responded softly, “I asked again because it was obvious from your reply that you did not understand my question. The Gemara clearly states: ‘Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven’ [Berachot 33b]. This means that a person’s financial condition, health and social standing, etc., are all pre-determined by G-d. Only spiritual matters are determined by the human being. If a person succeeds in the material aspects of his or her life, there is no cause to be proud, nor should lack of success cause depression — all of the material world is in G-d’s hands. But spiritual achievement is produced by the efforts of the human being. That is his accomplishment. When I asked, ‘How are you doing?’ I was asking about your consistency and growth in Torah learning, your success in keeping the commandments and doing good deeds. My intention was to find out how YOU are doing. Instead you told me about all that Hashem is doing for you.”
When Yaakov made his vow, he clarified his priorities and his beliefs. “If G-d will be with me… and give me some bread to eat and some clothing to wear” — i.e., the material aspect is in G-d’s control; I pray He will provide for me. “And I will return b’shalom — spiritually whole — to my father’s home” — i.e., through my efforts to perfect my service to Him.
The lives of our Patriarchs are lessons to us. We must always pray that G-d will provide what we need to survive in the material world and we must do OUR best to develop ourselves into the spiritually great people we are capable of becoming if WE do our best.