April 17, 2024
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The True Strength of Character

It is certainly easy to understand Yaakov’s anxiety at the beginning of this week’s parsha. After all, he is about to see his twin Eisav for the first time in over 20 years. The last time they were together, Eisav was so consumed with hatred for Yaakov that he literally prayed for “the day of my father’s mourning … so I may kill my brother Yaakov” (Bereshit 27:41).

In his message to Eisav, Yaakov begins with the observation that “im Lavan garti, with Lavan I have lived” (Bereshit 32:5). A famous commentary by Rashi on these words notes that “garti” has the same numerical value (indeed, the same letters, rearranged) as “taryag,” referring to the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. It appears that Yaakov’s choice of the word “garti” contains a message for Eisav: “im Lavan garti, v’taryag mitzvot shamarti, with Lavan the wicked I have lived, but the 613 mitzvot I observed and I did not learn from Lavan’s evil deeds.”

What is the point of this message to Eisav? Of all of the things he could have communicated to Eisav, why this? And why to a person who doesn’t seem all that concerned with mitzvot? It couldn’t be that of all the things that may sway Eisav, Torah commitment would be it.

From all that we know about Yaakov and Eisav, it is reasonable to believe that his message was not really about Torah observance, but his inner strength and ability to be unwavering in the pursuit of what he knew to be best for himself and his family—something he grew into the past 20 years since he last saw Eisav. Yaakov wants it to be clear to Eisav that he is no longer the person Eisav knew, a young man easily influenced by his surroundings and unable to advocate for himself. It is as if he is telling Eisav, “I lived with Lavan for all this time. His idolatry and sabotage did not undermine my commitment to Judaism. I learned how to stand up to him, and I can stand up to you, too.”

We can never know with certainty exactly when Eisav’s hostility toward Yaakov changed to acceptance. But Yaakov’s message as understood by Rashi evidently helped to advance the transformation. Yaakov’s words made clear to Eisav that his brother’s self-assurance was confidence rooted in his remaining true to God.

Life provides each of us with times when we have to face our own Lavans and Eisavs. Some of the challenges to living a meaningful Jewish life in the modern world are obvious; others are less so. While we may not be able to say “taryag mitzvot shamarti,” as Yaakov did, we can aspire to that ideal. After all, our commitment to Torah and tradition is still the way to true strength of character.


Steve Freedman is head of school of Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County.

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