Parashat Vayetze: Good Vibes

Have you ever been in a location that felt particularly negative to you?  Maybe you would even describe it as having a negative “energy?”  What about the opposite?  Are there places that you find to have a positive energy?  What causes us to sense these things, and do Jewish texts enlighten us on this topic?

This week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, begins with the words:

And Jacob went out from Beersheva, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon a certain place, and remained there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. (Breishit 28:10).

Rashi asks why the Torah mentions “And Jacob went out.”  It would have been sufficient to say, “He went to Haran.”  He teaches that Jacob’s leaving of Haran informs us that:

…the departure of a righteous person leaves an impression. For during the time that a righteous person is in a city, he is its glory, splendor, and beauty.  When he departs, glory, splendor, and light turn.  

According to Rashi, if there are good people in a place, we will experience glory, splendor, and beauty there.  For those who do experience different “energies” in different places, this might be intuitive.  However, Rashi also teaches that if those good people leave, so do the good vibes. 
Rabbi Michil of Zlotshov, an early Hassidic rabbi who was a student himself of the Baal Shem Tov, bristles at the mere mention of negativity in relation to Jacob.  He reminds us that there is a Jewish tradition that righteous people leave a positive impression.  For example, he says, we sit shiva in the home of the departed because their energy is present there and it is a comfort.  He turns Rashi’s comment radically on its head and understands him to say that when a righteous person departs from a place, “Light, glory, and splendor turn to the place.”  We can use energy in a certain place to help us grow.  

The opposite is also true, he teaches.  Negative energy remains in a place where an evil person was present.  What impact can these negative vibes have on us?  The Zlotshov Rebbe innovatively interprets Pirke Avot 3:2 as giving us one example:

When two people sit together and there are no words of Torah, this is “a place of scorners,’ as it is said ‘Happy is the man that has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of scorners.’ But when two sit together and there are words of Torah between them, the presence of G-d abides among them.”

Usually commentators interpret this Mishna to mean that when we sit together and do not speak words of Torah, we are creating a place of scorners, and alternatively, when we sit together and do speak words of Torah, we invite G-d to dwell with us.  The Zlotshov Rebbe is actually interpreting the Mishna to explain that when two sit together and do not speak words of Torah it is because it is a place of scorners.  In other words, the scorners that were hanging out in this place left their negative energy and this is having a profound impact on us!  In addition, if we do speak Torah when together, this is because of the positive spiritual energy there! 

To a certain degree, we can control the places we visit and the crowds of people with whom we associate.  If we feel a positive spiritual energy in a place, it can help us to do more good and add to it.  However, when we need to be in a negative place we should redouble our efforts to put positive spiritual energy there and we will be able to overcome it. 

Don’t think that running with a “bad crowd” won’t have an impact on you—there is social scientific research that backs up the idea that we unconsciously mirror the appearance and actions of others to feel a sense of belonging.  From a Jewish (at least Hassidic) perspective, there may be a lot more influencing us than we even realize—not only the people in the room with us, but also the energy in the room itself.   

What is the practical implication of all of this?  It is not just that we need to protect ourselves from negativity as best we can. We also need to be aware of what kind of impact we are leaving on others and on the spaces we inhabit.  We might think that our behaviors do not rub off on others or on our surroundings, but they do.  I hope that if we all take care to “keep it positive,” we will go into Shabbat (and every day) with good vibes.  Shabbat Shalom