Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky
Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky

Home Improvements - The Legacy of Yaakov and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai

Immediately following his encounter with Esav, Yaakov involves himself in three activities. First, he purchases a plot of land in the area of Shechem. Second, Yaakov encamps on the outskirts of Shechem which Chazal in Maseches Shabbos interpret to mean that he physically improved the city for the inhabitants of Shechem. Lastly, Yaakov builds a mizbeach for serving Hashem and it becomes the spiritual center of his new home. Three suggestions are given as to what physical improvement Yaakov made to Shechem: he built a bathhouse, established a market place, or instituted a new currency to enable the population to do business more efficiently.

We are supposed to view the actions of the Avos as models for our behavior. What should we derive for ourselves from the actions of Yaakov as he enters Shechem?

In Maseches Shabbos we are taught the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who had to flee from the Romans and spent many years in hiding, learning Torah in a cave. Why were the Romans looking for Rabbi Shimon? Chazal tell us that they wanted to punish him for a disparaging comment he had made about Roman society. Someone had praised three areas of accomplishments of the Roman Empire in Rabbi Shimon's presence. Their bathhouses, market places and bridges were praised as improving the lot of the populations they conquered. Rabbi Shimon responded to the praise saying that all these physical accomplishments amounted to nothing. The bathhouses were built to beautify citizens' bodies to enable more immorality; the market places had been built to allow public gatherings for inappropriate activity; the bridges were only built to enable the Romans to collect more money as tolls to further their own physical pleasure. Upon hearing these words of Rabbi Shimon, the Romans began to search for him, forcing him into hiding.

Many years later when the decree against Rabbi Shimon was rescinded, Rabbi Shimon emerged from the cave. To commemorate his escaping the clutches of Rome, Rabbi Shimon turns to Yaakov as a model. What had Yaakov done to express his gratitude for being saved from the clutches Esav, the ancestor of the Romans? He physically improved the city of Shechem thereby performing kindness to others just as Hashem had been kind to him. Rabbi Shimon, therefore, decided to improve the quality of life of the people of Teveria where he now resided.

The model that Rabbi Shimon chose to emulate is striking in light of the events that caused him to flee in the first place. He criticized the bathhouses, marketplaces, and bridges for toll collection of the Romans. Yet, these were the same areas of public life that Yaakov had improved for the people of Shechem! Yaakov built a bathhouse, a marketplace, and improved their coins! What did Rabbi Shimon have in mind by drawing upon the example of Yaakov in specifically those areas he had criticized so harshly so many years earlier?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the actual improvements Rabbi Shimon did perform for the people of Teveria. The gemara relates that he helped determine that a certain area in Teveria that had previously been thought to be impure was in fact pure. By making a spiritual improvement to Teveria, Rabbi Shimon was teaching us the secret of the improvements of Yaakov: of course every city needs bathhouses, marketplaces, and a source of revenue and monetary system. However, these physical necessities, like all other physical needs, can never be seen as ends unto themselves. In order to function in this world, physical needs must be taken care of, but only to facilitate spiritual pursuits. In Roman society, the physical bathhouses, market places and monetary system had become ends unto themselves. Without spiritual goals, all these institutions were no more than ways to pursue and enhance physical pleasure. Rabbi Shimon didn't oppose these necessities but rather opposed pursuing them as ends instead of as means to spiritual goals.

The key to Yaakov's success was his last improvement, i.e. building a mizbeach. He created the spiritual center of Shechem, thereby giving meaning to all he contributed physically. In Teveria Rabbi Shimon saw bathhouses, market places and a monetary system, and recognized the opportunity to help see to it that theses institutions didn't become merely physical ones. He purified Teveria, and by doing so purified the entire physical life of the city. A city can have well developed bathhouses, market places and a strong economy and be worthy to be the home of Yaakov and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai as long as there is a pure mizbeach at the center.

Copyright © 2007 by The TorahWeb Foundation. All rights reserved.