Life with Lavan
Rabbi Bernie Fox
And he commanded them saying: Thus you will say to my master Esav, “Thus says your servant Yaakov, ‘I have lived with Lavan and I have been delayed until now.’” (Sefer Beresheit 32:5)
I. Yaakov crafts a message
Yaakov returns with his family to the Land of Cana’an. He fled his father’s home to escape the anger of his brother Esav. Esav had declared his intent to kill Yaakov. Yaakov expects that he will encounter Esav. He sends messengers to Esav. These messengers are told to announce to Esav his brother’s return. The messengers are also will tell Esav that Yaakov seeks his friendship.
In the above passage, Yaakov communicates to his messengers the greeting they are to deliver to Esav. They are to tell Esav that during the many years of his absence, Yaakov lived with Lavan. Lavan was Yaakov and Esav’s uncle.
Yaakov lived with Lavan for twenty years. Surprisingly, he used the term garti to describe living with Lavan. This term communicates a lack of permanence. Instead, he might have used the term yashavti. This term communicates settling in a place. Yaakov was telling Esav that Lavan’s community never was his home. He was a sojourner or foreigner there, not fully a resident.
Why did Yaakov direct his messengers to share this with Esav? Why did Yaakov want Esav to know that he was a stranger and alien in Lavan’s home and community? Rashi cites an explanation from the midrash. Before considering his explanation, some background is necessary.
II. Addressing Esav’s hatred
Esav resented Yaakov because he believed that he had stolen the blessings that should have been bestowed upon him. Yaakov had disguised himself as Esav and Yitzchak blessed Yaakov believing he was Esav. One of these blessings was that Yaakov will be the master of his brother.
“I was not made into a minister or an important person. Rather [I was] a foreigner. It is not fitting for you to hate me over the blessings of your father. He bestowed upon me the blessing: You will be a master to your brother. It has not been fulfilled in me.” (Rashi, Sefer Beresheit 32:5)
Yaakov understood that his return would provoke Esav. Esav would be reminded of the blessings he believed Yaakov had stolen. Part of Yaakov’s strategy was to minimize Esav’s resentment. When he fled his father’s home, he was alone and without resources. He is returning with a large family, flocks, and possessions. Esav might interpret this as a fulfillment of the blessings that Yitzchak bestowed upon him. This conclusion would further enflame Esav’s anger and hatred. Yaakov needed to “spin” a story and alter Esav’s perceptions. He told Esav that his many years with Lavan had been frustrating or even humiliating. He had not become an important and influential leader, as implied by the blessings. He never was accepted. He was treated as a foreigner and outsider. He left home and he is returning as a simple person.
III. Yaakov was faithful to his values
Rashi adds another interpretation of Yaakov’s message:
“Another interpretation [of the use of the term garti is that] the numerical value of the word garti is 613. [It is] like saying I dwelled with Lavan and observed the 613 commandments. I did not learn from his wicked behaviors.” (Rashi, Sefer Beresheit 32:5)
This is another explanation of Yaakov’s use of the term garti to describe his years in Lavan’s home and community. Yaakov is using this word because of its numerical value. Its value is 613, corresponding with the number of mitzvot. Yaakov used this word to communicate an additional message. “I have been true to my values and lived a moral life, devoted to Hashem.”
This is a strange message to share with Esav. Esav rejected his father’s values. Would it not have been wiser for Yaakov to not draw Esav’s attention to their differences? If Esav believed that Yaakov had adopted some of Lavan’s values, then it would be easier for him to identify with Yaakov. They would be more similar. Also, wouldn’t Esav prefer to learn that Yaakov was not righteous and that he was undeserving of the blessings? Why did Yaakov feel that this message would impact Esav? What does this message reveal about Yaakov’s understanding of Esav?
IV. Yaakov’s understanding of Esav
Yaakov perceived in Esav underlying respect for the values of his father and grandfather – Yitzchak and Avraham. Esav proclaimed his rejection of these values. But at a deeper level, he recognized them as an exalted and sacred way of life. Yaakov did not assess Esav based solely on his external attitudes and behaviors. His assessment penetrated beyond the externals. At a deeper level, his brother retained intense respect for the values of Yitzchak and Avraham.
V. Earning Esav’s respect
This perception shaped Yaakov’s message. What would be Esav’s reaction if he concluded that his brother’s character had been compromised by living in Lavan’s community? Yaakov had left home embodying the values of Avraham and Yitzchak. He was completely committed to them. If Yaakov was returning less committed or compromised by his years in Lavan’s community, Esav would have less respect for him. He would view Yaakov as a charlatan. He would perceive him as someone who pretends righteousness when convenient but is quick to abandon it when circumstances are less favorable.
VI. Lessons from Yaakov
The parallel between this encounter and the experience of the Jewish people in exile are obvious. In every generation we must consider how we can best survive in exile. Do we try to be more like our neighbors? Should we moderate our practices and beliefs that make us different? Is it better to fit in? Yaakov warns us that this may be a very dangerous strategy. He tells us that we should not assume that we will earn the friendship of our neighbors by being more like them. We may discover that our compromises completely undermine their respect for us.