December 5th-6th, 2003
11 Kislev, 5764
In next week’s parsha, we will read about Ya’akov’s [Jacob’s] struggle
with a shadowy adversary: "And Ya’akov was left alone with a man who
wrestled with him until the break of dawn." Our Sages identify the
mysterious figure as the "guardian angel" of Ya’akov’s brother, Esav, and
this wrestling match has great symbolic (and mystical) overtones—the
paradigm, in a sense, of the historical battle between the Jewish people
(and Jewish ideals), and its enemies.
Ya’akov emerges from the contest wounded ("limping on his hip"), but
victorious, and with a new and glorious name, Yisrael ("fighter for G-d,"
is one possible translation). We witness his courage, tenacity, strength
and heroism in the face of a powerful opposing force.
The truth is that we witness an equal (if not greater) display of courage,
tenacity, strength and heroism on the part of Ya’akov in this week’s Torah
portion, as he struggles against another implacable foe—his own
father-in-law, Lavan. [Please be assured that there is absolutely no
aspersion implied against the class of fathers-in-law in general, and I am
proud to say that I have been blessed with a most honorable and kind one
in particular! And need I say that the same goes for mothers-in-law?] If
Ya’akov’s struggle is perhaps not quite so openly or dramatically
presented as next week’s, it is nonetheless of great import. And the way
our Patriarch conducts himself is meant to be a model to all succeeding
generations of K’lal Yisrael.
Fleeing from his brother, Esav, Ya’akov travels to the ancestral home of
his mother, where (as instructed by his parents) he hopes to find a wife
from the household of his uncle Lavan. Aware from the start of Lavan’s
reputation for deviousness, Ya’akov nonetheless pledges to work for him
for seven years in exchange for the hand of his younger daughter, Rachel.
When the term is completed--you may remember--Lavan switches daughters on
Ya’akov on the wedding night, and her older sister Leah ends up becoming
his first wife. Ya’akov agrees to work for another seven years for Rachel
(whom he marries after the week of celebration with Leah is over). After
that period of time, he stays on for an additional six years of employment
tending to Lavan’s flocks.
Now, there is a whole lot to talk about over here, including how Ya’akov
was permitted to marry sisters (one answer: this was before the Torah was
actually given, so that prohibition did not apply). And, signifcantly,
hovering over the whole story—as over all of the accounts of the
Patriarchs and Matriarchs in the Book of Genesis—is the clear hand of
Divine Providence, directing the formation of the Jewish people.
But we are going to skip to the end result of Ya’akov’s term with Lavan.
By the time he secretly takes leave of Lavan near the end of this week’s
parsha (for he greatly fears the designs of his father-in-law, and
brothers-in-law), Ya’akov is the father of 11 sons and one daughter, and
has been blessed with enormous wealth. "The man [Ya’akov] became
exceedingly prosperous and he had proliferating flocks, and maidservants
and servants, and camels and donkeys." (30, 43)
Lavan hotly pursues, and overtakes, Ya’akov—originally with malevolent
intent, our Sages tell us. (Remember the words of the Hagaddah, "…Pharaoah
decreed destruction only for the males, but Lavan intended to eradicate
all"). In the course of their verbal confrontation, Ya’akov steps forward
and defends his conduct in taking flight from Lavan, as well as his
steadfastness throughout all the years of his employment:
"…[I stole away] Because I was afraid, for I thought perhaps you might
steal your daughters from me…What is my
transgression? What is my sin that
you have hotly pursued me?…These twenty years I have been with you,
your ewes and your she-goats never miscarried,
nor did I eat of the rams of your
flock. That which was mangled, I never brought
you—I myself would bear the loss, from me
you would exact it, whether it was stolen by day
or stolen by night. This is how I was: By day
scorching heat consumed me, and frost by night;
my sleep drifted from my eyes. This is my twenty
years in your household: I served you fourteen
years for your two daughters, and six years for
your flocks; and [yet] you changed [the terms
of] my wage a hundred times. Had not
the G-d of my father—the G-d of Avraham, and the Dread of
Yitzhak—been with me, you would surely
have now sent me away Empty
handed; G-d saw my wretchedness and the toil of my hands…."
(Translation: Artscroll Stone Chumash)
What’s especially remarkable, then, is not that Ya’akov became
wealthy--all of the Patriarchs were blessed by G-d with material
success--, but that he achieved all that wealth despite the continuous
deceit and ill will of his employer, Lavan. Most important of all, Ya’akov
did not forsake his own ethical integrity whatsoever or slacken in his
dedication to perform his job faithfully. However often Lavan chose to
play fast and loose with their contractual agreements, Ya’akov continued
to stand by his own word. To maintain such a level of integrity in an
environment of corruption (and against an opponent who never hesitated to
aim low) was truly heroic.
Wrestling with angels is impressive, but so is standing firm (and
remaining morally pure) while doing business with crooks!
Besides all of his other characteristics of greatness, then, Ya’akov
embodies the model trustworthiness and diligence that an employee is
supposed to have. He is meant to represent the loftiness of Jewish
"business ethics," a standard of conduct far higher than the norm in our
commercial (and corporate) culture. Our Sages tell us that our "yes" is
supposed to be "yes," and our "no" is supposed to be "no." The Jewish
person who conducts his or her business affairs with scrupulous honesty
and integrity, upholding the letter and spirit of the Torah, is—according
to Maimonidies—referred to in the Scriptural text (Isaiah 49, 3), ‘And He
said to me, you are My servant, Israel, in whom I glory."
G-d glories in the integrity exemplified by Ya’akov in his dealings with
Esav…and in our own conscientious discharge of our obligations as employee
(or employer). Sanctity in business, and the marketplace, is as much a
part of our mission of being a "holy people" as is scrupulousness in
kashrus and observance of the Sabbath.
It is not easy to remain a person of integrity when others around us are
not so scrupulous. But then again, our own obligation to be righteous (and
to remain loyal to the Torah’s commandments) is never predicated on the
behavior of others. We have to do what is right regardless of what others
do. In fact, there is greater spiritual reward, and growth of character,
precisely in keeping the Torah when it is most difficult! (And we see from
the example of Ya’akov that being righteous does not, in any way, preclude
material success—which, we are taught, is ultimately in the hand of Hashem
To become people of loyalty and faithfulness, like Ya’akov, firm in our
commitment to the Torah’s laws and its high ethical standards: that is the
real heroism that Hashem expects of us. May we have the strength (day in,
and day out) to rise to that challenge. GOOD SHABBOS.
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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