Spending years with a wily trickster like Laban not only took a toll on Jacob’s nerves; it also challenged the patriarch’s faith.
He says to Esau, Im Lavan gar’ti – “I dwelt with Laban” (Gen. 32:5). One implication is: “I lasted all those years and I survived!”
The sages, however, saw more than this in the word gar’ti. They discovered that the Hebrew letters also spell taryag – 613, the number of commandments. “I lived with Laban,” Jacob is saying, “but I still kept the commandments”.
An unfriendly environment can make it difficult for anyone to remain faithful to the Torah, but Jacob achieved it. Indeed it was the Torah that sustained his spirit and courage over such a long period.
There is a parallel with the Holocaust, and to me it is graphically exemplified by a noble, erudite congregant of mine in London, Dr Michael Zylberberg.
In pre-war Warsaw he was a teacher of Jewish literature and history. He and his wife survived the Sho’ah by living as gentiles. He kept a diary which had to be hidden when on one of many occasions the Nazis were closing in upon him. The rediscovery of the diary after the war is a story all of its own. Translated into English, it was published in 1969 by Vallentine Mitchell.
I had a small part in the choice of the English rendition of the Biblical verse which he wanted in place of a dedication. The wording we agreed upon was, “Had your law not been my delight, I would have died in my affliction” (Psalm 119:92).
This is Michael Zylberberg’s personal Im Lavan gar’ti, though his was an implacably evil Laban.
The Im Lavan gar’ti discussion raises a further element. Bearing in mind what an irreligious man Esau had been before the brothers were separated, why should Jacob think Esau would be impressed to know that he still had a religious brother?
There may be an answer in the suggestion put forward by a few scholars that Esau had actually changed his ways.
How did Jacob know? We cannot be certain, but there is a rabbinic view that when Esau saw his brother his mercies were stirred, and that may be a sign of repentance.