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Home » Economy, Vayishlach

Vayishlach: Minority Syndrome

Submitted by on December 7, 2019 – 8:26 pmNo Comment | 113 views

When Jacob returned to Israel after twenty-two years of being a minority in the city of Haran, where his uncle Laban lived, he said “I sojourned with Laban . . . and I acquired oxen and donkeys, flocks, manservants, and maidservants.[1]

Why did he announce that he had sojourned with Laban, didn’t his family already know where he was? They were there when he departed for Laban’s home all those years earlier. Also, why did he brag about his vast wealth? Firstly, they could see for themselves and didn’t need to be told. Secondly, would a righteous person like Jacob brag? He must have been trying to convey a message. What was it?

Rashi, the classic biblical commentator, offered a surprising insight. The Hebrew word for sojourned is garti. In Hebrew, this word is spelled with four letters, gimmel, resh, taf, and yud. The Hebrew letters double as numbers; thus, each word has a numeric value. If you calculate the numeric value of these four letters, you arrive at six-hundred-and-thirteen; the number of commandments in the Torah.

The message Jacob hoped to convey was this. Although I sojourned in the home of Laban, a man of hateful deceit, and though I lived in the city of Haran, a place dominated by those who supported and agreed with Laban, I nevertheless, observed all the commandments of the Torah. I didn’t compromise on my beliefs or religious practices when I left my religious community, neighborhood, and environment. On the contrary, at Laban’s home, I grew even stronger and did not miss a beat.

Among Thieves
This is a rather curious way to live. Jacob knew that Laban was deceitful, and that Laban would likely try to take advantage of a wholesome man like Jacob.[2] Yet, not only did Jacob fail to avoid Laban, he embraced the opportunity to connect with him. He married Laban’s daughters and shepherded Laban’s sheep. In both endeavors, Laban did his best to deceive Jacob.

First, he manipulated Jacob into marrying both his daughters though Jacob was only interested in Rachel. Later, when Laban and Jacob agreed on a payment plan to compensate Jacob for his loyal service, Laban changed the conditions and the plan structure with such regularity and frequency that a lesser person would have lost count. Jacob himself confessed that had G-d not intervened, he would have ended up penniless.[3]

In all this, Laban was supported by the people of Haran. This was a lawless people whose conduct was at best immoral and at worst outright illegal.[4] In such an environment, one would imagine that Jacob would have grown suspicious and alert.

Yet, Jacob testified that he observed all the commandments. He prayed three times daily and observed Shabbat and Jewish festivals even though he was vulnerable during those times to theft and attack. You might think that he removed his kippah and tzitzit, dressed like the others, ate with the others, and tried to befriend them so they might, in turn, accept him as an equal. But he didn’t. He kept his Kippah, wore his tzitizit, donned his tefillin, and ate only kosher.[5] He marked himself constantly as an outsider and thus left himself vulnerable to the majority. Why did he do that? Wouldn’t that increase his risk?

Yet Jacob returned home with vast wealth. In fact, Jacob was trying to say that he returned home a wealthy man because he kept the commandments in Laban’s home. Because “I sojourned (garti) with Laban, I (therefore) acquired oxen and donkeys, flocks, manservants, and maidservants.”

Two Perspectives
Throughout the diaspora, Jews have responded to their status as a minority in one of two ways. Some took a universalist view. Let us blend in. Let’s not stand out as a minority, let’s talk like them, dress like them, behave like them, and eat like them. Let’s marry into their families and become part of their fabric. Then they won’t view us as outsiders, they won’t resent us, and won’t scheme against us.

Other Jews took a particularistic view. When we are away from our home, culture, and environment, it is doubly important to preserve the richness of our heritage. If we blend in and raise our children to be like the majority, our heritage will be lost to us forever. If our children don’t feel comfortable as a minority, they will blend in and we will lose our identity. We won’t be a people in hiding, we will cease to be a people. Therefore, the solution is to become comfortable with our minority status and learn to stand out even if, on occasion, this results in negative and unwanted attention.

The assumption is that those who take the first view succeed. They gain acceptance among the majority which produces the twin blessings that a minority can never take for granted; security and prosperity. The assumption is also that those who take the second view never gain full acceptance and always remain on the outside. Rarely, if ever, does a minority achieve stability, opportunity, and success.

A G-dly People
Yet, Jacob taught us that the opposite can be true. The assumption we discussed earlier makes logical sense. The ordinary approach is that when you are aligned with the majority, with the centers of power and economic success, you have more opportunity than when you are on the outside. But Jews are not an ordinary people. Jews are a G-dly people. G-d is not subject to logic and to the rules of nature. G-d transcends these rules. And as His children, so do we.

We don’t build our businesses to provide for our families or our homes to give us shelter. Our fortune lies in G-d’s hands. He is the one who provides shelter and sustenance, stability and security, but He only provides them if we make an effort. So, we make the effort. We build the business so G-d can provide for our family. We build the home so G-d can provide us shelter.

Since it is first and foremost from G-d, our priority is to secure G-d’s blessing. If our earnings came through our own efforts, our priority would be to establish a relationship with the majority. Since our earnings come from G-d, our priority is to establish our relationship with G-d. Once that is in place, once we identify Jewishly internally—in our minds and hearts, and externally—through our behavior and attire, we do all that we can to forge friendly relations with the nations among whom we live.

In the end, our efforts are more successful this way. When non Jews see that we are comfortable with our identity and carry ourselves with Jewish pride, despite being a minority, wearing a kippah on our heads, eating kosher at our business luncheons, and placing a Mezuzah on our door, when they see that we would end a meeting to pray to G-d or forgo a business opportunity to observe Shabbat, they respect us. In the short term, this kind of behavior might raise a few eyebrows, but in the long term, people come to trust us. They know that we worship a higher authority.

[1] Genesis 32:5–6.

[2] Ibid., 29:12 and see Rashi ad loc.

[3] Ibid., 29:25; 30: 7; 30:42.

[4] Ibid, 23:16; Bereshit Rabbah, 70:19.

[5] Jacob performed these Mitzvot in markedly different ways than they are performed today.

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