Integration without giving up independence
The Parasha in the daily life - Parashat Vayishlach - Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald - 5780
The history of Yaakov Avinu's life was full of struggles and challenges. As he described them to Pharaoh:
מְעַ֣ט וְרָעִ֗ים הָיוּ֙ יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיַּ֔י וְלֹ֣א הִשִּׂ֗יגוּ אֶת־יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵי֙ חַיֵּ֣י אֲבֹתַ֔י...
"Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers…" (Bereshit 47:9). Our Parasha describes several other stations in his life. At the beginning, the challenging encounter with Eisav after parting from Laban, at the end of a significant, challenging and complex chapter in his history. In Laban's house he started his family, while having to deal with Laban's charlatanry. He had to balance perfectly two essential needs: integration into the place and maintaining his self and spiritual independence.
On the one hand, he joined Laban's family, becoming a family member, working together with the family, collaboratively in the herding of the flock, and on the other hand, he had to differentiate himself spiritually from what was being done in Laban's family, preserving himself and not giving up his principles. About this challenging period, Yaacov said himself in our Parasha, עִם־לָבָ֣ן גַּ֔רְתִּי וָאֵחַ֖ר עַד־עָֽתָּה׃
"I stayed with Laban and remained until now" (Bereshit 32:5). The sages explained: "... the word גַּ֔רְתִּי has the numerical value of 613 - תרי״ג - it is as much as to say, “Though I have sojourned with Laban, the wicked, I have observed the תרי״ג מצות, the 613 Divine Commandments, and I have learned naught of his evil ways". (Rashi ibid, according to the Midrash).
In other words, despite Laban's evil deeds and leadership, Yaacov was unaffected by him, and did not give up his principles, he insisted on keeping the Torah commandment and Torah study, all in spite of the demanding and intensive work: Even though "I stayed" at Laban's with hard work and effort, I did not neglect to engage in Torah that includes the 613 Mitzvot" (Rabbeinu Ephraim's commentary ibid). Perhaps it should be learned from this that precisely because Yaakov made sure to study Torah and observe the Mitzvot, he had the courage to stand up to the challenge and to keep himself from learning Laban's evil ways.
Another challenging station in his history mentioned in the Parasha is in the city of Nablus- Shechem.
וַיָּבֹא֩ יַעֲקֹ֨ב שָׁלֵ֜ם עִ֣יר שְׁכֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן בְּבֹא֖וֹ מִפַּדַּ֣ן אֲרָ֑ם וַיִּ֖חַן אֶת־פְּנֵ֥י הָעִֽיר׃
"Yaacov arrived safe in the city of Shechem which is in the land of Canaan—having come thus from Paddan-aram—and he encamped before the city". (Bereshit 33:18).
The Torah emphasizes that he is "encamped before the city". From this, the sages learned of Yaacov's integration with the local people and a special collaboration with them:
"And he graced the countenance of the city; he performed gracious acts to benefit the city. Rav said: Yaacov established a currency for them. And Shmuel said: He established marketplaces for them. And Rabbi Yoḥanan said: He established bathhouses for them" (Shabbat 33b). Yaacov is doing his part to improve the city's resident's quality of life. Here, too, Yaacov is required to strike a precise balance between integration to the place and self-preservation, by staying outside the city rather than within it so that he and his family are not influenced by the local culture: "encamped before the city - according to the Pshat. Did not enter to live in the city but stayed outside the city. And it is as Yaacov's virtue of being lonely and not involved with other nations" (Haamek Davar on Bereshit ibid).
However, there are those who explained that Yaakov requested to reside with the local people in order to integrate with them, without fear and without giving up his principles: "encamped before the city" - he was not stationed as he was in Sucot, where he stayed on the site by himself, separated from the city and its people, because here he stayed in front of the city in connection with the people of the city, because he placed his dwelling there" (Malbim ibid).
One of the great challenges of the Torah in practical life in recent generations is the need to balance the need to integrate and be partners into the social and occupational place where the values and spiritual world are different, without giving up the spiritual beliefs. This is a tough challenge. Man, as a social being tends to be influenced, to blend into the social mantle, and to "line up" with its values and perceptions. It's hard to be 'unusual, irregular'. It is hard to feel different and society has a problem with dissimilarity.
Therefore, many times, integration and partnership can take a heavy toll on the spiritual side. Giving up important principles and spiritual perceptions.
For this not to happen, there is a need to prepare in advance for the challenge.
We cannot give up partnership and integration, but we should not give up our principles either.
Spiritual measures must be taken to enable self-preservation and spiritual strengthening, even in moments of weakness and difficulty.