LIVING WITH EVIL
At the beginning of this week's Torah portion, we find Jacob preparing to meet his twin brother Esau who still bore a grudge against him for taking the blessings of the birthright.
At the beginning of this week's Torah portion, we find Jacob preparing to meet his twin brother Esau who still bore a grudge against him for taking the blessings of the birthright. Esau had plans to destroy his brother. Jacob's approach to Esau appears to be humble, but according to our sages, there are many subtle hints of his intimidating Esau. He begins his message to Esau as follows, "With Laban [my father in-law] I have lived temporarily" (Genesis 32:5). Rashi, a great 11th century French commentator, points out that the biblical word used for the phrase "I have lived temporarily" has the numerical value of 613, the number of commandments contained in the Torah. Thus, as Rashi interprets, the verse reads, "With Laban I lived temporarily, and I kept the 613 mitzvot and did not learn from his evil actions." Jacob was stressing that although he resided for 20 years with the wicked Laban, he remained an uninfluenced, pious man.
From where did our father Jacob muster such spiritual energy? In the Torah, Laban is distinguished with a history of greed, arrogance, and deceit. Laban was also Rebeccah's brother (and hence Jacob's uncle). When Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, came to find a wife for Isaac, he gave Rebeccah jewelry. It was Laban who dashed to greet Eliezer at the sight of this wealth. Later, when Eliezer asked for Rebeccah from Betuel, her father, it is Laban who jumped to answer before his father, displaying an unusual degree of arrogance. On many occasions Laban tried to trick Jacob; always presenting himself as the innocent one. How could Jacob live so long with this wicked Laban and be unaffected?
Just two weeks ago in Parshat Toldot, the Torah recorded the marriage of Isaac to Rebeccah. There, she was described as the daughter of Betuel and the sister of Laban. Rashi explains why this information about Rebeccah, which was already known, is repeated. The Torah is stressing that although she was the daughter of a wicked person and the sister of a wicked person, she did not learn from their evil actions. This is the other place in the Torah where Rashi explains this concept of a righteous individual not learning from the evil actions of others. Having understood this, it seems logical to suggest that Jacob derived this spiritual energy from his mother Rebeccah. This is no small factor. After all, Jacob's son, Joseph was also in a hostile spiritual environment for 22 years when he was sold into slavery by his brothers. Almost miraculously, he maintained his identity through it all. So too, we are often faced with situations where we need this kind of energy. May we draw upon this strength to overcome all the challenges and negative influences that we encounter in our lives.
Rabbi Elie Cohen, who grew up in Atlanta, is an educator at the Columbus Torah Academy in Ohio.
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