Kefitzat Ha'Aretz- The earth jumped
Our Rabbis taught [in a beraita]: The earth jumped (kaftza ha'aretz) for three people- Eliezer Avraham's servant, Yaakov our forefather, and Avishai ben (son of) Tzeruya.
Avishai ben Tzeruya as we said, Eliezer Avraham's servant, as is written, 'And I came to the well today,' to teach you that he set out on the same day.
Yaakov our forefather at is written, 'Yaakov left Be'er Sheva and walked toward Charan' and it is written, 'He reached the place and lay there for the sun had set." (T.B. Sanhedrin 95a-b)
Chazal tell us that Yaakov was one of three people who experienced kefitzat ha'aretz (lit. the earth jumped or contracted, this is also known as kefitzat haderech, the path jumped, meaning that the journey was miraculously shortened). The other two are Avraham's servant Eliezer and Avishai ben Tzeruya. Chazal base their claims about Eliezer on a careful reading of the verse that describes his journey. The source for Avishai ben Tzeruya is an extended agada (story) related earlier in this section ofthe gemara. In short it explains that on his way to save King David's life the earth jumped and he was able to travel much faster than he would have naturally.
In our parsha we are told that Yaakov departed from Be'er Sheva, went to Charan, and arrived at the place where he ended up sleeping. These places are not close to each other, and yet they are mentioned one right after the other, in rapid succession, which gives the impression that the trip was quick. He departed, walked, and arrived at the place- as if the sun that rose as he left Be'er Sheva only set when he finally arrived at that place, and then he decided to lie down to sleep.
The Beraita connects the three instances by pointing out the common theme. At the same time such a comparison encourages us to contrast the stories. Even without Chazal's claim of kefitzat ha'aretz the story of Avraham's servant is full of events that defy the laws of nature. When the servant gives his own subjective description of the events he does so from the point of view of a person who feels that throughout his journey he did not have to do anything himself, but rather he was guided by a greater force. Chazal's addition of "kefitzat ha'aretz" fits in perfectly.
In the story with Avishai ben Tzeruya the situation is urgent; something must be done immediately in order to save David's life, and so Chazal peppered the story with details that highlight the haste, efficiency, and dedication Avishai had for his master and king.
Yet the kefitzat derech of Yaakov is something else entirely:
"When he got to Charan he said: Is it possible that I passed the place my fathers prayed and I did not [stop and] pray there? He wanted to go back. Since he thought about going back the earth jumped for him, and immediately 'he arrived at the place.'"
Yaakov missed out on a rare chance to pray and once he realized his mistake he immediately regreted it. According to the midrash his regret was enough to roll the earth back on his behalf, which gave him a chance to return to the place he was and rectify his misdeeds, repair the damage.
The language of kefitzah- jumping or skipping- is related to the language of kivvutz- contracting. One should not think that the miracle was that this person was suddenly given super strength that enabled him to bound over large distances, but rather that the earth suddenly contracted and the two points were brought closer together. In that moment one small step covered the distance of a great journey. (Mekor Mayim Chaim, Chayei Sarah)
According to the midrash such kefitzot derech are a rare occurence over the course of history. Chazal did not turn this into a phenomenon that would be repeated in future generations. The idea only makes a comeback in the time of the Chassidic masters, where we find that among the miraculous stories concerning the Ba'al Shem Tov there are also stories of kefitzot derech. These stories generally revolve around the same motivations and abilities attributed to the characters in the midrash; the Ba'al Shem Tov has these, along with the ability to make miracles. In these stories the Ba'al Shem Tov uses the "Shem" (the special name of God) to perform these wonders, modeling himself after Eliezer. (see Ba'al Shem Tov, Chayei Sarah) But aside from his reputation as a miracle worker, one could also see these stories as the result of his persona as a messenger- like Avraham's servant, a savior of Jews in peril- like Avishai ben Tzeruya, and one who is attempting to rectify what went wrong and repair the world- like Yaakov our forefather.
Yet the idea of kefitzat haderech in itself, especially the way it is used with Yaakov, is not all that educational. It is important to teach that change is slow process, that it involves hard work and effort, not hopping over hills and mountains. Perhaps this is the reason this idea is not a repeated theme throughout the ages, and only returns in later generations when such tales of wondrous acts are in vogue,and not just in Chassidic stories, but also in the works of S.Y. Agnon and his contemporaries.
Yet if we return to the original midrash it's clear that Chazal had an important reason to point out the existence of such a phenomenon, however unusual it was. Every once in a while we find people who have experienced a kefitzat derech, who have been able to seize a once in a lifetime opportunity to fulfill an important mission, people who were needed to bring about a revolutionary movement or introduce a novel idea, and these people somehow became leaders. With this midrash Chazal respond to these incidents. They explain that we should not expect miracles, such things do not happen often. At the same time we should be aware that there is a force and strength behind the missions we are tasked to fulfill, and that the drive for salvation and desire for repair have strength that can, at rare times, lead to miraculous results.
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