By: Rav David Milston
In or Out?
“And Ya’akov left Be’er Sheva and journeyed to Charan.” (Bereishit, 28:10)
According to Rashi, (Bereishit, 28:9,) Ya’akov’s journey took 14 years. The very last verse of Parashat Toldot tells us that Eisav left home more or less at the same time as Ya’akov, and went to Yishmael’s house. We are further told that Eisav married Machlat, Yishmael’s daughter, who was Nevayot’s sister.
Rashi is perplexed as to why the Torah needs to inform us of the identity of Machlat’s brother; he never appears in the subsequent plot, and his inclusion here seems rather superfluous.
Rashi explains that we are not interested in Nevayot himself, but we can learn from his presence that it took Ya’akov 14 years to reach Lavan’s house. How?
The fact that Nevayot is mentioned in connection with his sister’s marriage implies that he was involved in the proceedings, and from this we infer that the only logical reason as to why he, and not Yishmael, was involved in his sister’s wedding, must be due to the fact that Yishmael had passed away.
However, if that were the case, why is Yishmael mentioned in this specific verse; why not simply mention the brother? Rashi therefore concludes that Yishmael was still alive when Eisav and Machlat were initially betrothed, but passed away before the wedding day. Hence, he deduces that Yishmael died more or less at the same time that Ya’akov and Eisav left home.
Rabbinic tradition tells us that during these 14 years Ya’akov went to learn in the ‘House of Study’ of Shem and Ever. We could therefore read the first verse in this week’s parasha as: “And Ya’akov left Be’er Sheva, studied for 14 years in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever and only subsequently journeyed on to Charan.”
This Rashi raises an obvious question, a question that was asked by Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky:
Ya’akov Avinu was Avraham Avinu’s grandson, and Yitzchak Avinu’s son. He was a pure man who spent most of his life in study, before leaving home. He had learned about the Almighty directly from the founding fathers of Judaism for over 60 years, yet when leaving home, he still found it necessary to go and study with Shem and Ever. What could they possibly add to the teachings of Avraham and Yitzchak? Why was it so crucial for Ya’akov to stay with them for 14 years?
Rav Kamenetsky explains that Ya’akov was indeed a pure child studying Avraham’s Torah, and for the first 60 years of his life, besides his ongoing confrontations with Eisav, he had probably never come across a serious non-believing environment! He had lived in the holiest of surroundings with little or no exposure to the outside world.
How would this holy man survive in the house of Lavan? His education was relevant to the circumstances in which he lived, but how would it serve him in the pagan stronghold he was about to enter?
Ya’akov is fully aware that he is not equipped to deal with the challenge that lies ahead, so before setting off to his uncle’s house he goes to prepare himself in the Beit Midrash of Shem and Ever.
Shem and Ever were two distinguished monotheistic believers, who in contrast to Yitzchak, lived among the masses. They had not set up colonies and surrounded themselves in a closed environment; neither did they actively expel people of bad influence (Lot, Yishmael, and eventually Eisav.) Quite the contrary, they were believers who lived with non-believers, and their education was rooted in that context.
During his 20 years with Lavan, Ya’akov would be placed under enormous pressure from his surroundings. Indeed, the Torah he learned with Shem and Ever enabled him to ‘boast’ to Eisav upon his return to Eretz Yisrael, at the beginning of Parashat Vayishlach, that even though he had lived with Lavan for many years, he had never erred from the way of God.
We know that Torah is the means to reach our purpose in this world, but Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky refines this message even further. It is not good enough to simply open a sefer and learn; we need to first perceive the issues and dangers we face, and then direct our learning and our teaching with those threats in mind.
Implicit within this answer is the understanding that had Ya’akov not studied in the house of Shem and Ever before entering Lavan’s spiritual desert, it is very possible that his 60 years of learning under Yitzchak would not have sufficed to withstand the challenges ahead.
The message for parents and educators is crystal clear. Our society is constantly changing; the dangers that face our children today are not the same as those they faced a decade ago, and they are vastly different from the challenges that we ourselves encountered in our youth. It is therefore critical that we approach our education accordingly. It is crucial that we keep abreast of the issues and challenges facing children in the 21st Century.
To assume that we can simply provide our children with the same study sources that we used would be naive. We are not suggesting that the same fundamental weaknesses of human nature have changed; that would be equally untrue. What we are saying is that there is a need to delve into our children’s neshamot with the aim of preparing them in the best possible way for the challenges that lie ahead.
We can also infer from Rav Ya’akov that even in Yitzchak’s and Avraham’s time there were two schools of thought on how and where the Jewish Orthodox community should place itself in relation to the rest of society.
It would appear that Ya’akov Avinu grew up in a closed and protective environment, where exposure to non-monotheistic influences was strictly prohibited. This might not have been Avraham or Yitzchak’s preferred scenario, but by the time we reach the story of Ya’akov and Eisav, two family members, Lot and Yishmael, have been expelled precisely because they were considered destructive influences. Indeed, this very motif could well be the underlying factor in the conflict between Yosef and his brothers.
Avraham and Yitzchak’s colonies were self-contained, pure, and protective. Their influence on the outside world was not to be achieved by educating from within, but by strengthening themselves and sending educators out to spread the monotheistic message. The obvious advantages to such an approach are that one who remains within such a colony has a greater chance of remaining pure and faithful to the philosophy of our forefathers. The lack of exposure to the ‘real world’ is not to be seen as a failing, but as a protective shield from unnecessary risks.
In stark contrast, the ‘yeshiva’ of Shem and Ever was evidently in the Biblical equivalent of downtown Manhattan. Its noble ethos was to continue in the ways of Avraham and Yitzchak, but not by distancing themselves from the rest of the community. On the contrary, the objective was to change society from within. The purity and safety are difficult to sustain, but if such a system succeeds, the ‘final product’ is of inestimable value. A person who can emerge unscathed after living in Lavan’s house for 20 years has strengthened his character no end. Indeed, it is only after those 20 years in exile that Ya’akov becomes truly worthy of the name Yisrael.
Nevertheless, it would be unjust to describe such a school of thought without any mention of the obvious dangers involved. The more one becomes involved in society, the more chance there is to be influenced by that very same society. It is impossible to walk into a room full of smoke, stay there for half an hour, and emerge without the slightest smell of smoke on your clothes. Many have followed the example of Shem and Ever; those who have succeeded are the strongest of role models, but many more have also failed.
Ya’akov Avinu learned in both ‘yeshivot’ and lived to experience both ways of life. Even though he emerged a greater man from the house of Lavan, he was very clear on which option he would choose for his own progeny. When exiled to Egypt, he opted to create a new Abrahamic colony in Goshen that would aim to preserve the monotheistic ideal. He chose to avoid integration with the Egyptian people and culture in every possible way.
We also have to make that very same choice. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages. The closed environment retains a certain purity by cutting itself off from the rest of the world, but at the same time could potentially stifle religious growth. On the other hand, the option of living amongst society offers absolute exposure, though the very advantage of such an ethos could become its downfall; too much exposure without direction and inner strength has the potential of being spiritually disastrous.
Wherever we choose to live, we must endeavor to prepare ourselves accordingly, so that after a lifetime in this world we can emulate Ya’akov Avinu, and say that we did not stray from the ways of Hashem, in spite of our choices.