We read in the beginning of Parashat Vayeitzei of how Yaakov slept along the road as he made his way to Charan, and beheld his famous dream of the ladder. The Torah tells that when night fell, “va-yishkav ba-makom ha-hu” – “he slept at that place” (28:11). Rashi comments that the phrase “at that place” should be interpreted as implying a point of contrast: Yaakov slept there, but had not slept during the fourteen previous years, which he spent engrossed in study at the academy of Shem and Eiver.
The origin of this comment is the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 68:11), which cites Rabbi Yehuda as advancing this reading of the verse. Rabbi Nechemya, however, as the Midrash proceeds to cite, offers a slightly different reading: “Here he slept, but throughout the twenty years he spent in Lavan’s home, he did not sleep.” According to Rabbi Nechemya, the phrase “ba-makom ha-hu” excludes not the previous years, but the coming years, which Yaakov spent with Lavan, and during which he did not sleep. Rabbi Nechemya likely bases this reading on Yaakov’s own testament later in Parashat Vayeitzei (31:40), “va-tidad shenati mei-einai” – that he barely slept during the twenty years spent shepherding Lavan’s flocks, uncompromisingly committed as he was to the safety and wellbeing of the sheep. And thus the contrast implied by “ha-makom ha-hu,” in Rabbi Nechemya’s view, is between Yaakov’s sleep on the road and the subsequent years of tireless labor for Lavan.
As is the case regarding many “debates” we encounter in Midrash, these two readings do not necessarily reflect an actual disagreement between two Tanna’im. Rather, they may be seen as complementary, which, taken together, convey a meaningful message. In this instance, the Midrash points to the fact that Yaakov exerted maximum effort in two very different periods of his life – the time spent with Shem and Ever, and the time spent with Lavan. During these two periods, Yaakov had two very different responsibilities – in the first, his job was to study, and in the second, his job was to loyally serve his employer. And in both contexts, Yaakov exerted himself to the utmost to do the very best he could. We need not understand the phase “he did not sleep” literally, as suggesting that Yaakov did not sleep at all. Rather, this description likely refers to tireless effort and maximum exertion. Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nechemya convey the message that regardless of what stage we are in life, and of what our commitments currently are, we must give them all our energy and effort. Whether it’s the fourteen years with Shem Ever or the twenty years with Lavan, no matter what responsibilities we currently have, we are to be fully invested in them and try to meet them at the very highest standard we can.