Jacob’s Message to Esau

Jacob fled the wrath of his brother Esau and stayed with his uncle Laban for 20 years. Our parsha this week relates that Jacob is now returning home, concerned that Esau still harbored hatred towards him. Indeed, after Jacob sent angels to survey the threat from Esau, they returned with an ominous report that he was on the way to confront Jacob with 400 heavily armed men.

Jacob told the angels to inform Esau that “I have sojourned with Laban and have lingered until now.”

On the words “I have sojourned with Laban”, Rashi comments:

The numerical value of “garti-I have sojourned” is 613, as if to say, “I sojourned with Laban the evil one, yet I kept the 613 commandments and did not learn from his evil actions.”

Jacob’s message to Esau was that he should not think that Jacob was vulnerable because he had lived with Laban whose evil most likely rubbed off on him. Jacob therefore stated that despite his association with Laban for so many years he observed all the Mitzvos and did deviate from his righteous ways.

Commentators ask why Rashi felt he had to add that Jacob did not learn from Laban’s evil ways. Isn’t it obvious that, if he observed all the 613 commandments,  he did not emulate Laban? If he had conducted himself in the immoral fashion of Laban it would have meant that he failed to observe many of the commandments.

Behaving Immorally with the Sanction of Torah

One way of explaining the meaning of the words – that he did not learn from Laban’s evil ways – is that even a person who technically observes all 613 Mitzvos, can still find ways of behaving immorally.

Nachmanides, famously, interprets the verse “You shall be holy” to imply that one can be a disgusting person with the sanction of the Torah. This means that it is possible for one to technically keep all the Mitzvos but find loopholes which enables one to engage in less than righteous behavior. For example, one can eat kosher food but do so in a gluttonous fashion. So, while this person has not violated any of the commandments it cannot be said that his actions are pure and beyond reproach.

Hence, Jacob’s message to Esau was that, not only did he keep all the commandments, he did not allow Laban’s compromised morality to contaminate him in the least. The 20 years he spent with Laban, who was even worse than Pharaoh as the Haggadah states, did not affect Jacob’s righteousness and morality and he was therefore not vulnerable to Esau’s threats.

But when Jacob was told that Esau came with 400 men, Jacob was frightened. Why?

The answer lies in the symbolism of 400 men. One explanation as to the significance of the number 400 in this context is that 400 was the number of years that G-d told Abraham his descendants would be in exile.

By coming with 400 men (which, by the way, is the gematria of the words “the hands of Esau”) Esau’s subliminal message to Jacob was that while he might have resisted Laban’s influence during the 20 years (the square root of 400) he spent with Laban, Jacob and his descendants could not remain impervious to the threat and influence of future exile.

Jacob felt that while Laban’s influence did not rub off on him, he feared that Esau could still pose a threat because while Jacob might have been shielded from Laban’s influence over 20 years, he had no guarantee that his progeny would survive the peril of 400 (20×20) years in exile.

Learning From Evil

There is a deeper way of explaining why Jacob uttered the words, “And I did not learn from his evil actions” after he had stated that he kept all of the 613 commandments. This approach requires a better understanding as to how we must deal with evil: there are three approaches:

On the most basic level, evil exists so that we resist it and ultimately destroy it. This form of evil is not salvageable and must be eliminated. The Biblical nation of Amalek is the personification of this form of evil, about which the Torah admonishes us to destroy and obliterate its memory.

There is a second way to deal with evil. In addition to resisting evil, we must also try to learn lessons from it. The Psalmist states “From my enemies you have made me wise.” One way of interpreting this verse is that we can and must learn positive lessons from evil. For example, if we see an evil person committing a crime with passion, we learn that we should likewise perform a Mitzvah with enthusiasm. Indeed, Reb Zushe of Anipoli, the great Chasidic master, famously stated that we can lean seven lessons from a thief.

The advantage of this approach over the first is that by learning lessons from evil we have the capacity to transform that evil because it became the engine of our enhanced positive behavior.

However, there is also a drawback to this approach. If evil behavior motivates us to do good, the evil siphons off some of the energy from the forces of holiness and allows the evil to justify its existence.

The third level is where we do not need evil to teach us lessons because we stand head and shoulders above the evil by basking in the light of holiness and positivity, in relation to which evil does not exist.

The first two levels represent the challenges of exile, when we coexist with the forces of evil. This situation forces us to either combat the evil with the intent of destroying it or, alternatively, try to find positive lessons from evil that enables us to grow with the added boost of energy that we garner form the forces of impurity. On the third level, there is no need to engage and struggle with evil.

This is also the difference between the focus of a Jew in the weekdays and the focus of the Jew on Shabbos.

In the weekdays we must contend with evil. We confront it, resist it and even attempt to harness it for holy purposes. But the weekday dynamic is fraught with danger because dealing with evil can also affect us adversely and bring us down.

Shabbos, on the other hand, raises us to a level of peaceful spirituality where we stand above the impurity of the weekdays and we do not need to struggle with evil, nor do we have to learn lessons from it. We derive strength from our association with pure unadulterated holiness.

This now explains what Jacob meant when he added the words “I have not learned from his evil actions.” Jacob intimated that not only did he observe all the commandments but that he did not even have to learn positive lessons from Laban’s evil ways because, despite his involvement with Laban, he was completely above the fray and lived a Shabbos experience even when in the weekday and exile mode.

Jacob Kept Shabbos

This explains a puzzling midrash that Jacob, in the house of Laban, only observed the Shabbat. This sems to contradict Rashi’s assertion that he observed all the 613 Mitzvos.

The answer is that Jacob, despite his association with Laban, remained aloof and in a perpetual Shabbos mode.

This is also the difference between Galus and Geulah.  In the time of Redemption, we will no longer have to deal with evil, in any form. We will live a perpetual Shabbos existence, growing and thriving without the need to engage evil. May we see its unfolding imminently!

Rabbi Heschel Greenberg

Published in Parsha

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