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Jacob's Lament

Jacob's Lament


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 answer.

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.

Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn, New York. In 1976 he was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, as a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul since 1986, president of the South African Rabbinical Association, and a frequent contributor to His book From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading was recently published by Ktav, and is available at Jewish bookshops or online.
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Chava Oslo, Norway December 11, 2008

How apropos! Now, after the Mumbai tragedy, it is so particularly fitting and moving to read these words. Thank you and may our efforts indeed be with enthusiasm..and with the result of Moshiach coming! Reply

Tarek November 21, 2007

True This is totally true, we must play the soft music of justice with such grace that it destroys the harsh sound of injustice. Reply

Anonymous November 28, 2004

This is how Israel lost the battle in the media

Press bias against Israel is getting rampant, particularly in Europe

All Jews must confront newspapers, TV, radio stations and other media to reject anti-Israel dishonest reporting Reply

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