In the story of Abraham negotiating with the Hittites for a burial place for his wife Sarah (Gen. 23) he tells them, “I am a stranger and sojourner with you” (verse 4), implying that he lacked any landed property of his own because he was an outsider.
In this week’s portion we find Jacob using the same word, “sojourn”, when explaining to Esau where he has been for the last many years: Im Lavan gar’ti – “I have sojourned with Laban and I stayed until now” (Gen. 32:5).
Does Esau need to know that Jacob has no estates? Presumably not, but what Jacob is saying is that he never let himself settle down permanently with Laban or anywhere else because he always intended to come home and become reconciled with his brother.
The rabbinic sages, however, as Rashi points out, read a further lesson into Jacob’s words. They took the Hebrew gar’ti – “I sojourned” as indicating that wherever he was he had maintained his observance of the 613 commandments.
The Hebrew that expresses this thought is a brief rhyme, Im Lavan gar’ti v’taryag mitzvot shamar’ti – “I lived with Laban but I kept the 613 mitzvot”.
Strictly speaking he could not have kept the 613 since at that early stage of history many of the commandments did not yet exist. Laws that arose, for instance, out of the Exodus and the forty years in the wilderness could not have been known to Jacob.
The rabbis were well aware of the discrepancy, yet they asserted that all the patriarchs kept the mitzvot and even rejoiced on Simchat Torah, which technically had not yet been instituted or even contemplated.
But the reference to the commandments is a poetic way of saying that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had the spiritual insight to realise that every moment of their daily lives had to be dedicated to the Almighty.
It is well known that Abraham founded the belief in one God; what the rabbis were adding was that theoretical beliefs needed to be expressed in day to day actions.