In the beginning of Parashat Vayeitzei, we read of Yaakov’s famous dream that he dreamt as he slept during his journey to Charan. He saw a ladder extending to the heavens with angels ascending and descending, and he heard God assure him that he would be protected, he would safely return to his homeland, and he would beget a large nation that would inhabit the land of Canaan. The Torah tells that Yaakov awoke and exclaimed, “Indeed, there is God in this place, and I did not know!” (28:16).
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 69:7), commenting on the words, “Va-yikatz Yaakov mi-shenato” (“Yaakov awoke from his sleep”), suggests reading the word “mi-shenato” (“from his sleep”) as “mi-mishnato” – “from his learning.” Numerous writers struggled to explain this ambiguous remark, what it means that Yaakov awoke that morning from learning Torah.
An especially bold and creative explanation is offered by Rav Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, in his Ma’or Va-shemesh, based on a more famous Midrashic passage, cited by Rashi (to 28:11), that Yaakov spent fourteen years engrossed in Torah learning before his journey to Charan. Although Yaakov invested himself tirelessly in study – in fact, Rashi cites the Midrash as stating that Yaakov did not enjoy a single night’s sleep during those fourteen years – he did not experience a prophetic vision throughout that period of intensive learning. He received prophecy only now, as he made his way to Charan, after he offered a heartfelt prayer (“va-yifga ba-makom” – 28:11, as explained by Rashi, based on Berakhot 26b). The Ma’or Va-shemesh thus suggests that when the Midrash speaks of Yaakov “awakening” from his learning, it means that he was “awakened” to – that is, made aware of – the importance and power of prayer. Until then, he was keenly aware of the great importance of study, but it was only now that he fully appreciated the importance of prayer, that spiritual greatness cannot be attained through study alone. He was “awakened” from his excessive focus on learning, as his eyes were opened to the power of prayer.
The Ma’or Va-shemesh here points to the tendency we sometimes have to emphasize one aspect of religious life too strongly, at the expense of others. Sometimes, our commitment to one religious value can cause us to “sleep” with respect to other important values. Single-minded focus on just one mitzva is conveniently simplistic, obviating the need for complexity, balance, proportion and nuance. It allows us to go through life “asleep,” mindlessly pursuing just a single goal without balancing it with other, equally important objectives. The Ma’or Va-shemesh’s creative insight reminds us to appreciate the importance of the full range of the Torah’s obligations and values, and to avoid the mistake of limiting ourselves to just a single religious ideal.