Vayishlach: The Courage to be a Jew

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Vayishlach, Yaakov Avinu is returning home to Eretz Yisrael after having lived for the past twenty years with Lavan, his uncle/father-in-law.  During this time, he married his wives – Leah, Zilpah, Rachel and Bilhah, fathered eleven sons and one daughter, and amassed great wealth and many flocks. 

On his way back home, he fears a confrontation with his brother, Eisav, who he has not seen since he fled from home decades prior, in the aftermath of “stealing” the contested brachos (blessings) that Yitzchak gave his sons in his old age (Bereishis 27).  To prepare for the historic meeting with Eisav, during which Yaakov fears for his life and the lives of his family members, amongst other things, he sends a message to Eisav: כֹּה אָמַר, עַבְדְּךָ יַעֲקֹב, עִם-לָבָן גַּרְתִּי, וָאֵחַר עַד-עָתָּה. – so says your servant Yaakov, with Lavan I sojourned, and I have tarried until now (Bereishis 32:4-5). 

What does he mean, עִם-לָבָן גַּרְתִּי, with Lavan I sojourned?  Rashi famously explains: גַּרְתִּי בְּגִימַטְרִיָּא תרי”ג, כְּלוֹמַר, עִם לָבָן גַּרְתִּי וְתַרְיַ”ג מִצְוֹת שָׁמַרְתִּי וְלֹא לָמַדְתִּי מִמַּעֲשָׂיו הָרָעִים – I have sojourned, גַּרְתִּי, in numeric values is equal to 613, the number of mitzvos.  As if to say: I have sojourned, גַּרְתִּי, with Lavan, and the 613 mitzvos, תַרְיַ”ג, I have kept, and I did not learn from his wicked ways (Rashi to 32:5). 

R’ Soloveitchik zt’l explains, “Yaakov was taken away from his parental home and experienced a long night of darkness, misery and distress.  He was burdened with the mission of proving to the world that the covenantal community was capable of practicing Avraham’s unique moral code, by living a lifestyle of saintliness – not only in the Promised Land, but in exile, far from the hills and valleys of Chevron and Shechem.

“עִם-לָבָן גַּרְתִּי, I have sojourned with Lavan, yet I observed the 613 mitzvos.  Yaakov stayed with Lavan for twenty years, enough time to settle down and become a citizen of Charan and to consider himself a veteran resident of Charan.  He should have said, im Lavan yashavti, I have settled with Lavan, but he said גַּרְתִּי, sojourned; he felt a stranger in Charan, the way his son Yosef later felt a stranger in Egypt.  He had not assimilated; he had not integrated himself into Lavan’s society and community; he had not accepted their morals, their code of ethics, or their lifestyle.  He sojourned in Charan for a long time, yet he preserved his moral religious identity: his commitment to the G-d of Avraham, his commitment to the way of life that the G-d of Avraham sanctioned, his commitment to the Promised Land.  All those commitments, and many more, were not affected at all.

“Yaakov was as dedicated at the end of his twenty years of servitude in Lavan’s house as he was that first night he spent on the cold stones in Beis El when he pledged, the L-rd will be my G-d (28:21).  At the completion of his sojourn in Charan, the angel of G-d revealed himself to Yaakov: אָנֹכִ֤י הָקל֙ בֵּֽית־אֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר מָשַׁ֤חְתָּ שָּׁם֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָדַ֥רְתָּ לִּ֛י שָׁ֖ם נֶ֑דֶר – I am the G-d of Beis El, where you anointed a monument, where you pronounced to Me a vow (31:13).  In other words, you remained loyal to your spiritual heritage and faith in Me.

“Yaakov (while he lived at Lavan’s house) had to prove that the Torah is realizable in poverty and oppression, that the immigrant – no matter how hard he had to work for a livelihood, no matter how poor and oppressed – is capable, if he makes up his mind, to give devotion and loyalty to his ancestral tradition…The immigrant, no matter what his destiny turns out to be – glorious success or miserable failure – can, if he possesses heroic quality, attend to his commitment (to Torah and mitzvos)” (Chumash Masores haRav, Bereishis, p.241). 

Yaakov was not merely preparing for battle with Eisav by informing him that he lived with Lavan for twenty years.  He was, rather, announcing to Eisav – and to every Jew in every generation – that he remained true to the ideals of Torah, the path of mitzvos, and the sanctity of the Jewish way of life, even under the most oppressive and difficult of environments.  It was his stalwart faith and courage that endowed every Jew, in every time and exile, with the ability to remain true to his faith and to the RS”O.

R’ Yisrael Meir Lau shlita writes, “As Pesach approached, Naphtali (R’ Lau’s older brother) and his friends were determined to do anything to avoid eating chametz during the holiday.  Although the only food available to them was the daily ration of 3.5 ounces of bread, still it was important to them to observe the laws of Pesach.  Months in advance, at the beginning of January, they began to  prepare by collecting potatoes.  They told me about their arrangements and tried to explain their significance.  The prisoners had organized a trade in potatoes: three potatoes were worth the daily bread ration…

“One day, a feeble Naphtali dragged his feet toward Block 8 and stood next to the barbed-wire fence.  Hearing his weak voice calling my name, I rushed out to him.  He pulled a few potatoes from his pockets, and explained that he could not carry them because they hindered him while working in the crematorium, so he was bringing to me the goods he had set aside for Pesach.  He asked me to guard them carefully.  He explained to me why potatoes were so important, adding a few words about the prohibition against eating leavened foods.  I guarded those potatoes with my life.

“… Purim arrived.  The Jews in Buchenwald decided to celebrate Purim as best they could… No one had a Megillah, yet they did not concede defeat.  Several days before the date, some of the older Jews in the camp held a meeting.  They resolved to shake off their despair and try to reconstruct the Megillah from memory.  Each man would write whatever verses he remembered, and a committee of elders would try to reconstruct the proper order of the text… They wrote out the verses with charcoal on yellow paper torn from discarded sacks of millet.  On Purim Eve, the Jews of Buchenwald read the improvised scroll…” (Out of the Depths, p.57-58).

Im Lavan garti: I never made myself at home with Lavan, Yaakov declared.  I always knew I was a stranger, whose ways, norms, morals, beliefs and practices were different.  And it was this gift, the courage to practice, live and continue as a Jew, even under the most oppressive of conditions, that Yaakov bequeathed to all of us.

As we prepare to celebrate the victory of Chanukah once again – she’asah nissim la’avosainu ba’yamim ha’heim ba’zman ha’zeh  it is a lesson and message we would do well to remember. 

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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