Living With Threat

Yaakov sends Esav the message that despite having lived with Lavan, he has managed to keep the commandments and learned to stand up to powerful figures.

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Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

The last time the twins were together, Esau was so consumed by his hatred for Jacob that he prayed, “May the day of my father’s mourning approach so I may kill my brother Jacob,” (Bereishit27:41). And so, Jacob left to learn in Yeshiva and then live with his uncle Laban in Padan-Aram, where he married and raised a family.

Now, more than 30 years later, how does Esau feel? Has his hatred subsided, or has it intensified? Returning home to such an ambiguous situation Jacob realizes that a confrontation with Esau is inevitable, and consequently prepares for whatever might happen.

At first the message Jacob sends Esau is deferential: “With Laban have I lived and I have been detained until now. I have oxen and donkeys, flocks and servants and maid-servants, and I have sent word to inform my master, so that I may find favor in your eyes” (ibid.32: 5-6).

The 613 Mitzvot

In his comments on Jacob’s opening words, im Lavan garti (with Laban have I lived), Rashi notes that garti (have I lived) has the same numerical value (indeed, the same letters, rearranged) as taryag (numerically equaling 613), referring to the 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah. This means, “Im Lavan garti, v’taryag mitzvot shamarti--With Laban have I lived, and 613 mitzvot I observed, and I did not learn from his wicked ways.”

Remember The Hidden Persuaders, by Vance Packard? That book exposed the use of psychological techniques by advertisers to raise sales. He wrote about “subliminal messages” and “subliminal projection,” defining it as “the technique designed to flash messages past our conscious guard.”

Jacob’s choice of the word garti contains a subliminal message: garti-taryag, I lived with Laban, but kept the mitzvot. My sainted teacher, R. Moshe Besdin, ZT”L (may his memory be a blessing), often reminded us of the importance of maintaining the Torah’s values when we would leave the Yeshiva for the outside world, a world filled with Labans. He told us he expected to hear from us, and that all we would have to write were the words from Rashi, “Im Lavan garti, v’taryag mitzvot shamarti.” Many of us satisfied his request.

Although this was surely a very pleasing message to send to our Rebbi, what is Jacob’s point in sending it subliminally to Esau?  What does Jacob hope to accomplish? Why should the fact that Jacob still keeps the mitzvot impress someone like Esau? Does he care?

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Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.