Yaakov’s first words to his brother Eisav after twenty-two years were, “Im Lovon garti – I lived with Lovon.” Rashi explains that the gematria of “garti” (I lived) is 613 hinting that I continued to keep all the 613 mitzvos while I was with Lovon. “I wasn’t influenced by him and didn’t learn from his evil deeds.”
It is very difficult, even superhuman to avoid the influences of those around us. In a well- known section of his Hilchos Dei’os (6:1) Rambam says, “It is the natural way of a person to be influenced in his attitudes and deeds by his acquaintances, friends and the people of the place where he lives.” These influences can be so subtle that we may not even notice them at first. No-one can deny that Englishmen are different from Americans and both are different from Frenchmen. These distinctions are detectable even amongst Jewish people. They may be innocent attitudes like speaking quietly or loudly or whether one greets a newcomer. When I saw French bochurim in Gateshead yeshiva with berets on their heads, I was shocked. “I wouldn’t be seen dead in a beret,” I exclaimed in my teenage immaturity. For them it was normal. And you can tell an Englishmen wearing a tie in Eretz Yisroel ‘a mile off.’ If we are influenced in these minor ways, surely we are also subject to spiritual influences.
Lovon was notorious for his dishonesty. He started by committing a heinous trickery of changing Yaakov’s bride under the chuppa, then demanding another seven years work. He kept on changing the terms of Yaakov’s employment. Yet Yaakov himself remained the epitome of ehrlichkeit, guarding Lovon’s sheep in extreme weather and even taking responsibility for losses which he couldn’t prevent, as described earlier (31:38-40). If the atmosphere of the place was dishonesty and trickery how did Yaakov maintain such ehrlichkeit? And if he was prepared to trick himself if this was what he had to do like when he tricked Yitzchok to get the brochos in parshas Toldos this only makes the question greater. Having done it once so successfully he could easily have been influenced at least not to try so hard to protect Lovon’s sheep.
This question on how Yaakov avoided bad influences is of course even greater with Avrohom and Yitzchok. They were an oasis of spirituality in a world where everyone else served idols. The question is even greater with Noach. Maybe idol-worship was clearly such nonsense that it was possible not to accept it, but Noach’s generation was totally immoral. They simply indulged all their taavos. As the posuk says at the end of Parshas Bereishis, the people’s thoughts were “evil the whole day.” Did Noach not have a yetzer hora? Faced with such influences, how did he remain “a tzaddik tomim b’dorosov,”? And we must not forget Yosef in the tuma of Mitzrayim. How did he maintain his purity when faced with temptation? Is all this not a contradiction to the Rambam that it is the natural thing for a person to be influenced by his surroundings?
To strengthen this question even more let us bring another detail which we have learnt about over the last few weeks. Rashi commented (Bereishis 19:22) that the malochim who came to save Lot and destroy Sodom made a serious mistake when they said, “Mashchisim anachnu es hamokom hazeh – we are going to destroy this place.” A malach has no power. Everything is done by Hashem. They should have said, “Hashem is going to destroy the place.” The Targum Yonoson at the beginning of Vayeitzei says that the malachim who were going up the ladder in Yaakov’s dream were these malachim who had committed the sin of implying that they were going to destroy Sodom. As a punishment they were banned from returning to Shomayim until this point. So we must ask how did these malachim make such an error? Did they really think that they were going to destroy Sodom and not Hashem? The answer could be that they were in Sodom infamous for disregard for others. “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours,” was their communal attitude. Maybe this attitude of putting oneself first rubbed off on the malachim after just one day in Sodom. Not that they really thought that they were destroying Sodom but they expressed what would happen in a way which put themselves in the centre. So if even malachim can be influenced by their surroundings, how were Noach, the Ovos and Yosef able to withstand the influence of their surroundings? And coming closer to home, how can we withstand all the influences which we face?
Rashi (7:2) asks how Noach knew which were the kosher animals of which he needed seven and which were the non-kosher animals of which two of each sufficed? He answers that Noach must have learned Torah. Yuma 28b says that Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov were zekeinim yoshvim b’yeshiva. Yuma 35b says that Yosef learned Torah in Mitzrayim despite his challenges. We see a clear thread and answer to our question. Only through studying the Torah were these tzaddikim able to withstand the enormous impure pressures coming from the society in which they lived. A man walking through the streets with an empty mind will absorb the impurity of the street. One whose mind is full of Torah can avoid that risk. There is no other solution. Reb Avigdor Miller once wrote that he was walking with a talmid chochom and noticed that his eyes were absorbing what he saw in the street. He realized that this talmid chochom was not tocho k’baro. No-one is immune.
Yaakov Ovinu was a “Yoshev Ohalim.” He sat in his tent and learned Torah. And even when he wasn’t in his tent, he was still in his “tent” and learned Torah. That is the only way he could say to Eisav after twenty two years away, “I stayed with Lovon and didn’t learn from his evil deeds.”