Parshas Vayeitzei - One Day ata a Time

By Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran

Posted on 11/10/21

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There is a Chinese saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  The wisdom of this adage is evident to anyone who has ever embarked on a long journey, one whose destination is many miles, many hours and many airport lines away.  The saying invites us not to feel overwhelmed by the vastness of distance but to focus on the simple, manageable and comfortable steps directly in front of us.

Similarly, the vastness of time seems to change when we adjust our perspective. 

When we were young, time often seemed interminable.  Day after unending day, we longed to “hurry and grow up already!”  But then, as adults, we want nothing more than to tap on the brake of time, slowing down its ever-quickening rush.  It seems the heat of summer has barely faded before we are stamping the snow from our feet!  The long, lazy days of summer become relentless rushes where June no sooner arrives than we are getting ready for the holidays in the Fall. 

Could it be that time really moves at varying paces? Could the movement of the clock really bend to our perceptions?  The astrophysicist might scoff, but our own experiences suggest that time, rather than being a straight, unyielding arrow, is an undulating chord.   

This week’s parasha, Vayetze, offers a perfect case in point. Yaakov, having fallen in love with Rachel, goes to his Uncle Lavan and asks permission to marry her.  Lavan grants his blessing but only on the condition that Yaakov work for him for seven years. Seven years! Seven years is an eternity to a young man, is it not?  Surely Yaakov will protest!  Surely, he will beseech his uncle to be more reasonable!  But Yaakov neither protested nor begged.  There was no reason to.  For him, the years flew by.  Those seven years “seemed ... a few days because of his love for her [Rachel].”

How could Yaakov not have chafed each and every day of his servitude? How could each moment not have seemed to be interminable to him?  Because for him, each day, was both a small step toward his goal and a fullness unto itself. 

As the Torah makes clear, each day Yaakov was not working for Lavan but rather b’Rachel, for Rachel.  Not only did Yaakov feel that his time and effort was invested in his love for Rachel but because of his love whatever labors he endured seemed like no labor at all.  His heart was clear.  His goal was set.  He labored so he could marry the woman he loved.

Lavan, slippery and devious in his way, would not be able to deny this fact later. Mizrachi focuses on the words, be’ahavaso osa – because of his love for her. A moment of love is like the fullness of eternity. And so, Yaakov’s intense love for Rachel made the seven, long, hard years of labor under the hand of the despicable Lavan as the blink of an eye.

When we are doing something meaningful, valuable and worthwhile, time seems nonexistent.  But when we struggle, each hour, each minute, each second plods forward in a seemingly endless drudge of time. 

Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski z’l, a world renown expert in drug and alcohol abuse, brought a unique insight into Yaakov’s experience in this parasha.  He quotes the commentaries to emphasize the point that, unlike Yaakov, when we are separated from someone or something we love, each day can feel like seven years.  It was Yaakov’s great gift that he could hold his love for Rachel so clearly that his seven years of labor seemed to him but a single day.

How, Dr. Twerski wondered, was Yaakov able to accomplish that?

Interestingly, his answer came thanks to one of his patients, a young man who struggled with his addiction for many years, unable to contemplate life without alcohol.  It was only when he joined the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship that he was able to strengthen himself in recovery and finally get the upper hand on his demons. 

How did he do it, Dr. Twerski asked him.

“My difficulty,” the young man said, “was trying to imagine my whole life without alcohol.  That, to me, was just overwhelming.”  My whole life.  But at AA they told me not to focus on my whole life, but to focus just on this one day, today.  ‘It is not impossible for you to abstain from drinking just today, is it?  Focus only on what you must do today.  After all, there is nothing you can do today about tomorrow’s sobriety, so there is no point contemplating it.’  That made sense to me.  So, I tried it.  One day at a time.  One step at a time.  Then another.  And then another.

Dr. Twerski realized that our Mussar works teach the same lesson.  The yetzer hara (evil inclination) constantly badgers us saying, “Why even try to observe all the Torah’s prohibitions and restrictions?”  The argument is insidious and effective.  There is no way one can maintain such a regime for the rest of your life.  It’s too much.  Why struggle and deny yourself all of life’s pleasures.  Better off not even starting.

Of course, the response to the yetzer ra’s seemingly logical argument is suggested in Rabbi Tarfon’s wise observation, “It is not yours to complete the task, nor is it yours to desist from it…”  We don’t need to do everything, and we certainly don’t need to do it all now.

There is no need to address “the rest of my life” today.  I have the rest of my life to do that!  All I need to deal with is today.  I can deal with today.  I can deal with today’s temptations and challenges.  It’s tomorrow’s that are overwhelming.  But when tomorrow comes, I’ll deal with its challenges then.

When Torah tells us, that Yaakov worked seven years for Rachel, it says, “va’yiheyu b’einav k’yamim achadim – they seemed to him a few days.”  Achadim is translated here, “a few” but it comes from the word echad, one.  It more correctly means, multiple ones or “single days.” 

Working and waiting seven years would have been overwhelming, even for Yaakov.  But Yaakov didn’t work for seven years.  He worked for seven years’ worth of single days!  Each day.  One at a time. 

Each day of deprivation was manageable when he dealt only with that day of struggle.  Most of us, despite our hardships, can deal with today.  Tomorrow… well, let’s worry about it then.  We see the challenge of “tomorrow” in our New Year’s resolutions.  Oh, we are quite resolute when we make them but for most of us, they are broken before January turns to February.  Why?  Because a year is a long time.  But if we only resolve to keep one day of resolution – not to smoke, not to drink, to manage anger, to eat more healthy foods – we will find that a year is not such a long time.  It is only three hundred and sixty-five todays.

Rav Dr. Twerski, my beloved and respected friend whose recent passing we continue to mourn, taught that, “Reducing challenges to smaller segments of time makes them much more manageable.”   

So many of us react with anger or anxiety when something we want is denied us for even a short period of time.  But seven years?  The Tur adds perspective to the years of Yaakov’s labors.  Most of us might focus on the actual passage of time and how those long hours, days, weeks, months and years felt to Yaakov.  The Tur focuses instead on Yaakov’s deep and abiding appreciation for Rachel’s worth.

We often consider any amount of time we expend “wasted” if it is expended for something, we do not deem worthwhile.  Certainly, the opposite must also be true – if we value our endeavor then the time devoted to it is time well spent.

Seven years is a long time but not when you know the value of what the investment of that time brings to you! So it was that those seven years were to him “but a few days.” In his mind, there was no price too high to pay for Rachel. Sforno is explicit in this regard, “he thought that it was indeed appropriate to pay such an excessive price.”

Rachel was well worth it.

We are worth it as well.