At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Yaakov is on his way to meet up again with his long-lost twin brother, Esav. As we all know, Esav was not a great guy. In fact, the reason why Yaakov has just been away for 22 years working for Lavan, instead of being at home with his family in Israel, is because he had to flee from Esav, who wanted to kill him after he took the birthright (which Esav had already sold to him). So it is understandable that Yaakov is scared about his reunion with Esav. He is scared that Esav is going to kill him, take his wives, children, and money. He has built up so much…. and now has so much to lose. You can only imagine what was running through his mind as he put togethor a plan of attack, especially when he heard that Esav was heading towards him with 400 men – an army of considerablesize even by today’s standards.
So Yaakov sends a message to Esav: “I have sojourned with Lavan and have lingered until now. I have acquired ox and donkey, flock, and servant, and maidservant, and I am sending to tell my lord (you – Esav) to find favour in your eyes.” (Bereishit 32:5)
What’s the meaning of Yaakov’s message? Everything he says in his message is an attempt to convince Esav that the blessings that he took from him, although they were taken rightfully, haven’t come to fruition in any case, and so there is nothing for him to be jealous or angry about.
Yaakov is saying:
I was blessed to “Be a lord to your brothers”, but I have been only a sojourner and not a dignitary or notable. I was blessed to receive wealth “from the dew of the heavens and from the fatness of the land”, but my wealth – cattle and slaves – is neither from the heavens, not does it grow from the ground! So you see, Esav, the blessings never came to fruition. You have nothing to be jealous about, so please, if it’s not too much trouble, don’t kill me.
This was Yaakov’s message, and once he sent gifts in addition to this message, his plan worked out, and Esav didn’t attack him.
Our Sages point out that when Yaakov sends this message to Esav, it’s deeper than just the plain meaning of the words that we have explored until now. Remember, the Torah was written by an Infinite God, and when you write a book it is a piece of your mind of paper. So by connection, the Torah has infinite depth, just as Hashem does. Sorry to always repeat this point, but it is the most important point to remember in learning Chumash, in my opinion. We have to put it at the forefront of our approaching the parasha, and the only way to do that is to constantly reinforce for ourselves this point.
Our Sages notice that the word used here for ‘sojourned’ is “garti”. They point out that every letter in the aleph bet has a numerical value, (aleph = 1, bet = 2 etc; This is called gematria) and if you add the letters of “garti” togethor it equals 613 – the number of mitzvot in the Torah. What is the meaning of this? Why does the Torah record this conversation with the word “garti”, which everyone knows is just a buzzword for the 613 mitzvot?
Our Sages tell us that Yaakov is saying “I sojourned with Lavan, a completely evil person, and yet I kept the six hundred and thirteen commandments and did not learn from his evil actions.”
Yet the words of our sages still need to be understood. What’s going on here? Are you telling me that Yaakov was just giving himself a pat on the back? Congratulating himself on living with Lavan for so long and not being influenced negatively? Sure, it is a great accomplishment, but remember the greatness of Yaakov, and the humility of Yaakov! It almost seems like he is showing off here?!
In truth, maybe he is just giving himself a pat on the back. We do need to do that sometimes. But the Ben Ish Chai, one of the great Sefardic Rabbis of the last few centuries, explains it differently, and reveals to us a extremely important concept that can and should be a foundation of our lives.
The Ben Ish Chai says that Yaakov isn’t giving himself a pat on the back here. It’s exactly the opposite. You see Lavan was an incredibly wicked man. He used to lie awake at night thinking how to trick people and con people out of their money. If there was opportunity to make a quick buck on a shoddy deal somewhere, he would run there. His whole life, his whole enjoyment, was trickery and thievery, and no one applied themselves to their livelihoods with anywhere near as much zeal as Lavan did to his swindling. Yaakov says to himself, ‘I should have seen the way Lavan lives, and forget about being negatively influenced by living with him, I should have grown from living with him! Look at the energy and passion he puts into stealing! And that’s just stealing! I serve Hashem, the One God who runs the entire world. I should be putting double the energy that Lavan puts into stealing, into my service of Hashem! It’s so much more important! And beneficial! The rewards that I will one day receive for the mitzvot that I do are eternal, whereas Lavan makes a few dollars that will be gone sooner or later! How could I have lived with Lavan for so long, and not learned from his evil ways, by becoming even more committed to my good ways?’
Yaakov is not patting himself on the back, he is giving himself critique.
It sounds a little negative, but really this is a beautiful thing. The secret to really growing spiritually is not to wait for someone else to tell you what your next step is, or what mistakes you made, or what incredible accomplishments you accomplished. The secret is for you to tell yourself. To stop every now and then and take stock of your spiritual progress. We all do this when it comes to Yom Kippur, but really we should ask ourselves every week, maybe every day: How have I succeeded? How have I not? If not, why not? How can I remove the barriers that prevented me from succeeding? How can I increase those things that helped me succeed? Where to from here?
I think that Yaakov had this approach. And I think that if we want to grow spiritually, this is the most important thing to integrate into our lives. Once we do this, it doesn’t matter where I am – I could be in Jerusalem, Sydney, Tahiti, even Lavan’s house surrounded by the worst influences possible – but I will still grow spiritually because when I see darkness around me, I only appreciate more how precious light is. When I see immorality and deceit, it only strengthens my love of the Torah of morality and honesty, and causes me to take stock of where I am, and where I need to go.
That, my friends, is what Yaakov is trying to teach us. The gemara says that Yaakov never died. How can the gemara say such a thing?! There was a eulogy given for him in the Torah! Of course he died!? It means that Yaakov lives on in us. He established the Jewish people. We are his legacy. And what a legacy he left us with! A strength that no matter where I am or what situation I am in, I will still grow spiritually. Because when I see darkness around me, I only appreciate more the light of Torah, and stop for a moment to take stock of where I am, and where I need to go.