Yaakov Avinu spent big chunks of his life outside of Israel. His last 17 years were, of course, spent in Egypt, and he stayed in Padan Aram for a number of decades. The exact number of decades (two or four) is a debate, depending upon your choice of commentary. With that in mind, I feel less guilty for spending the last 16 years in the Diaspora. The minor difference is that God gave him assurances about his sojourns in the outside world while I did it to myself. It’s of interest, at least to me, how God was so solicitous before each journey. On his way to Padan Aram, God, speaking from atop the ladder, said, “Notice I will protect wherever you go, and return you to this land (Genesis 32:15),” and before the descent to Egypt, “Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt...I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up (46:3-4).” On the other hand, when it was time to return, God just said, “Now, arise, go forth from this land and return to the land of your birth (31:13).” How come no guarantees? Well, that’s this week’s assignment.
Our parsha begins with a famous scene, Yaakov sends emissaries to Esav with the following instructions: So shall you say to my master to Esau, “Thus said your servant Jacob: I have sojourned with Laban, and I have tarried until now…” (32:5). There’s a lot to unpack in that little speech. Let’s begin at the end. What’s this business about “tarried” (Hebrew: aichar)? Let’s go for simple. He stayed until God told him to return. But God could have told him to return home either because it was no longer good for him in Padan Aram with his nasty father-in-law or, perhaps, the coast was clear back in Canaan, that Esav had calmed down after 20 or 40 years. I like the second approach, for it begins to answer our question about why no promises of safety with the instructions to go back home.
It’s the first phrase of the message that gets all the famous attention. What does it mean “I sojourned with Lavan”? Rashi gives two answers. The first is: I sojourned means that I remained a nobody, so that blessing from Dad that bothered you so much never came true. OK. The second is based on a well-known gematria. The numerical value of the Hebrew word garti (meaning: I sojourned) is 613. Clearly, this is a reference to pomegranates. No, it’s not. That’s the number of mitzvot in the Torah. Which means that Yaakov is telling Esav that he can’t harm him because he has remained faithful to Torah and mitzvot throughout his stay with Lavan. I mean, we all know that righteous Jews have been immune from persecution and danger throughout history. Hmm. In this particular circumstance, there is another dynamic at work. Yaakov may be thinking that God didn’t give him promises of safety because he had acquired his own shield through his faithfulness to their tradition.
There’s one more text that unnerves the commentaries. After being told that Esav was, indeed, on the way to a reunion, but he was coming with an army of 400, Yaakov didn’t assume that this was an honor guard. Then the verse records: Yaakov became very frightened and was distressed (verse 8). Why this excessive concern? Yaakov has had assurances of safety from God, but he still might be afraid of an army of this size; perhaps he has committed a sin and has lost some of his merit. Rashi records the most famous approach to the problem: He’s afraid that he might be killed; he was “distressed” that he might have to kill others. This sounds like the statement of Golda Meir, ob”m, “We can forgive the Egyptians for killing our children, but we can never forgive them making our children killers.” An admirable and, I believe, Jewish reaction.
But, perhaps, we can answer this question with a possible solution to our original problem. Why didn’t God give Yaakov as strong a promise of protection when coming back to Israel as he got when leaving Israel, both for Padan Aram and Egypt? Simple: God is telling Yaakov that, in general, Jews don’t need as much Divine protection and intervention in Israel, because this is our natural habitat. If we bring penguins (don’t you just love penguins) to a zoo in a hot climate, we must carefully arrange for their safety. Israel is the natural habitat for Jewish souls. Sadly, that doesn’t mean that we can’t injure our innate ability to live in the Holy Land through egregious misbehavior. Many prophets have told us that when we behave like Sodom, we lose our normal affinity to the Promised Land.
Now, please, allow me to give my interpretation for this dilemma. Yaakov was afraid because Esav was approaching with 400 men. That’s reasonable. Even in Israel we’re not supposed to depend on miracles. We still must do everything in our power to act responsibly and wisely. But he was distressed and felt tza’ar, because this was Israel, the land promised to him through his allegiance to his father’s and grandfather’s belief system. This stuff wasn’t supposed to happen here. God gives him ironclad promises when he leaves Israel, because that’s where he feels like a fish out of water, but not here.
In Israel, we feel a connection to the Land, which engenders a different mindset. There’s more confidence and poise. We feel at home. In the play “Camelot,” King Arthur describes his kingdom as the best place for “happy ever aftering.” L’havdil, I think that’s what our prophets meant when they’ve promised us time and time again, in many different ways, the promise that “a time will come when the great shofar will be blown and all those who were lost and expelled will return to worship God here.” It’s good to be home.
By Rabbi David Walk
Rabbi David Walk, who has recently made aliyah, was a teacher at the Bi-Cultural Day school as well as Congregation Agudath Sholom’s education director. He continues to be a tireless teacher and educator. For over 30 years, he has taught students from third grade and up and conducted many classes for teens and adults. Prior to joining CAS, he served as director and teacher at Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, Israel.