I Stayed with Laban

Robbie Harris
Vayishlah By :  Robert Harris Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On Dec 10, 2011 / 5772 | Torah Commentary

The opening verses of this week’s parashah recount Jacob’s decision, upon returning home after 20 years of “living abroad,” to get in touch with his brother, Esau. You may remember that they—ahem!—had not parted on the best of terms (see Gen. 25:27-34 and especially Gen. 27:1-41 for the gritty details). At the beginning of the parashah, it is not yet clear to what extent Jacob is motivated by fear, by friendliness, by craftiness—or by some combination of these and potentially other concerns. Let us read the first two verses of the portion:

Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, and instructed them as follows: “Thus shall you say: ‘To my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob: “I stayed with Laban and remained until now.”‘” (Gen. 32:4-5)

I would like us to focus on the phrase “I stayed with Laban” (literally, “with Laban have I sojourned”). The Hebrew phrase is ‘im Lavan garti, but for the moment let us think of that last word untranslated, and consider the phrase as “I had been a ger.” I wish us to think of the words in this way because that is how Rashi begins his explanation of the passage:

I have sojourned (Heb. garti): I did not become an officer or a dignitary, but a stranger (ger). It is not worthwhile for you to hate me on account of your father’s blessing, [with] which he blessed me (Gen. 27:29), “You shall be a master over your brothers,” for it was not fulfilled in me.

You see, in this first comment (midrashically derived), Rashi understands the Hebrew verb garti as “I have lived as a sojourner/stranger”—not what the word means according to context, “I stayed/I lived.” Note also that Rashi does not apply the Rabbis’ typical (aka midrashic) understanding of the biblical Hebrew ger as meaning “convert/proselyte,” the meaning of which, of course, cannot apply here.

So, here, Rashi would have us understand the verse as containing Jacob’s admission that the material rewards contained in Isaac’s blessing—which Jacob had stolen from his brother—did not pan out: Jacob is returning to the Land as he left—a refugee, and one fearful of his brother’s (justified) reprisals at that.

But Rashi’s second comment—even farther from the contextual or plain meaning—is what, for some reason, intrigues me here even more:

Another explanation: garti has the numerical value of 613. That is to say: “I lived with the wicked Laban, but I kept the 613 commandments, and I did not learn from his evil deeds.”

Forget for the moment the question of how could any character in Genesis observe the Torah when God’s revelation at Mount Sinai did not take place until Exodus 20 (this is a trifling matter in the world of midrash!). Here, Rashi, via the midrash, points out that the biblical word garti has the same letters (and, hence, the same numerical value) as the traditional number of the Torah’s commandments, taryag (613).

Now, whenever one turns to gematria, the number games based on the numerical values of Hebrew letters, one ought to keep in mind the warning of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra against ever going this route. Ibn Ezra offers a stinging rebuke to those who would use gematria in his comment on Gen. 14:14 (end): “Scripture does not speak in gematria, for [if it did] whosoever wishes may change the meaning of any word for good or evil!” In other words, one may have recourse to gematria only as a game—it is never the actual meaning of a text, because language, even (and especially) divine language in Torah, simply does not work that way. Rather, we should always apply the rabbinic rule for reading: “Scripture never escapes the hold of its context” (ain mikra yotzeh midei peshuto). In other words, when reading Torah (as opposed to, say, being a darshan of Torah), the text primarily means just what it says.

Nonetheless, when I read Rashi’s second interpretation of the words “with Laban have I sojourned,” I want to know: what was in the mind of the darshan who first proposed this gematria? Why would he suppose Jacob would think that Esau would be reassured by his claim that while living with Laban, he—Jacob—had kept the mitzvot?!

We cannot know for certain, of course, because the midrash does not generally give us the mind-set of the authors of the various midrashic interpretations. However, we can ponder the question—and intuit an answer (shaky grounds, I know): Perhaps the darshan wishes us to think that Jacob, seeking to reconcile himself with the brother whom he has earlier wounded, at the very least approaches Esau sympathetically (guilt feelings?), as though the latter—living in the Land all during the time that Jacob lived in Aram—kept the commandments himself and would have been concerned that Jacob had not been loyal to the Covenant while in “exile”? You might say that my reasoning is far-fetched (a wonderful Yiddish word!), but, hey, we’re living in the world of gematria—everything is far-fetched there.

Let’s leave it as a question, then. For some reason or another, the darshan whose teaching underlies Rashi’s second comment has Jacob reassuring Esau that he, Jacob, has kept the mitzvot while away. What do you suppose the reason was?

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.