In this week's parshah, the dreaded encounter between Jacob and Esau finally
materializes. After decades of separation, the twin brothers who are anything
but identical square up. Jacob, who fled the wrath of Esau 34 years earlier, is
returning home with a large family and much wealth. Esau is fast approaching
with four hundred desperados armed to the teeth. Will it be all out war or will
they make peace? Jacob prepares for all eventualities and also sends a message
to his hostile brother:
"Im Lavan garti," Jacob declares, "I have sojourned with Laban." Rashi
interprets Jacob's message to mean that though he lived with a notorious
trickster for more than 20 years, he "did not learn from his evil ways" and
remained a righteous Jew committed to the G‑dly way of life. This is indicated
by the gematria (numerology) of the Hebrew word garti ("sojourned")
which equals 613 -- the number of mitzvot in the Torah.
But wasn't this rather boastful of Jacob? The same man who will soon be
praying for deliverance and claiming that, "kotonti" ("I have been
humbled") by all G‑d's kindnesses to him, now seems to be pointing proudly
to his piety, telling Esau how religious he has been?
The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, 1838-1933) offers a novel
interpretation. He explains that Jacob's words should not be understood as a
boast but rather as a lament. "I sojourned with Laban, but did not learn from
his evil ways" means that Jacob is bemoaning the fact that he did not learn from
the way Laban did evil. How did Laban do evil? Enthusiastically! With vim and
vigor. His wicked ways were embarked on with a passion and energy, and Jacob
regrets that his own good deeds were not performed as passionately as
Laban's evil deeds.
If the good guys were as incentivized as the bad guys, crime would be
dramatically down. If the security forces were as passionate as Osama Bin Laden
and his cohorts, we would have found him long ago. If the police and justice
systems of the world operated with the same commitment and drive as the drug
lords and the hijacking syndicates, we would all be better off. The trouble is
that the forces of evil are enthusiastic and highly motivated while the forces
of good often depend on civil servants who are overworked and underpaid.
Nikita Khrushchev (of United Nations shoe-banging fame) was once addressing a
large public meeting in Russia during the anti-Stalinist period. He was blasting
Stalin's cruel and unforgivable atrocities, when a voice in the crowd suddenly
spoke up and asked, "If Stalin was such a villain, why didn't you do
anything about it then?"
"Who said that?!" thundered Khrushchev. There was absolute silence in the
hall. Not a sound, not a movement. People froze in fear.
"Now you understand why I didn't do anything," was Khrushchev's convincing
This interesting interpretation of Jacob's lament reminds us that the voice
of morality must be at least as loud as the voice of evil. Too often the voice
of justice is soft and still while the voice of corruption and degeneracy is
loud and bombastic.
Who will amplify the sweet, silent sound of goodness?
Let us strive to become as passionate and assertive for the cause of G‑dliness
and goodness as the other side is for evil and injustice. The world will be
better balanced, much nicer and a lot safer.