"Jacob and Esau's Reunion" by Francesco Hayez (Wikimedia)

Living With Threat

Jacob sends Esau the message that despite having lived with Laban, he has kept the commandments and learned to stand up to powerful figures.

Commentary on Parashat Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4 - 36:43

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,” (Genesis 27:41). 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” (Genesis 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?

R. Moshe Alsheich (16th-century Torah scholar) explains that Jacob’s words contain an even subtler subliminal message: When you last knew me, Jacob intends to say, I was a person easily influenced by my surroundings, unable to stand up for myself. At first, I could not stand up to Laban, either.  But, I have always known what was important–the mitzvot. And know, that I have become strong–I lived with Laban for twenty years, and his idolatry did not affect my compliance with mitzvot. So, be prepared for a new Jacob, one who can stand up to you, too.

Much has happened to Jacob in the past years, and his contacts with Laban have had a deleterious effect on Jacob’s outlook on life. Where once he dreamed of angels traveling between heaven and earth, eventually his dreams became filled with “striped, spotted and blotched sheep”–increased material accomplishments. So, he was fortunate that Hashem guided him to leave Laban before the situation would worsen. Nevertheless, throughout everything–taryag mitzvot shamarti.

Threat to Spirituality

Jacob’s upcoming confrontation and reconciliation with Esau will also threaten Jacob’s spirituality. This, says the Ramban (Nachmanides), is the message implicit in his wrestling with the angel, the saro shel Esav (Esau’s ministering angel), which will leave him limping: he will survive the clash of ideologies, but it will bring him to the brink of destruction. Yet, throughout, Jacob will be strong, because taryag mitzvot shamarti.

We don’t know when Esau’s belligerence changed to acceptance, nor do we know what brought about the transformation. Surely, Jacob’s triple strategy of “offering, prayer and war-readiness” facilitated the change. But we cannot discount the effectiveness of Jacob’s first subliminal message–saying that he will be able to confront Esau, because he has remained true to the will of Hashem.

There will be many forces that will threaten Jacob. Some will be openly hostile, like Esau; others will present an amiable veneer, like Laban. What all of them have in common is that they endanger Jacob’s relationship with Hashem. Alsheich’s comment is a kal vachomer (an argument from a less stringent to a more stringent case): one who can resist the Labans of the world can certainly stand up to the Esaus.

There are many forces in the world antagonistic to the values of Torah. Some are openly contentious, while others are more devious. Some may be foreign, while others are so similar that they look like a twin.

The poet, E.E. Cummings wrote, “to be nobody–but yourself–in a world that is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else–means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”

The key to our prevailing in that battle is Jacob’s message, im Lavan garti, v’taryag mitzvot shamarti.

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

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