Living With Lovon

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.”

Where Are We?

“You did not want to marry her to your brother. Instead she will be married to your enemy. You did not want to marry her to someone permitted to her. She will marry someone forbidden to her.” (Medrash Rabboh). Yaakov Ovinu is being criticized for hiding Dina from Eisav to prevent him from marrying her. In the end she was ‘married’ to Shechem. This Medrash has been questioned by many. Why should Yaakov have even considered marrying Dina to Eisav the rosho? Already at the age of fifteen he was reported to have been guilty of serious aveiros (Boba Basra 16b). He was the “man of the field” as distinct from Yaakov, the “man who dwelt in tents” (of Torah). The argument that she could have had a good influence on him seems weak. Would we consider marrying our daughter to a rosho because she might be able to influence him? Why should Yaakov be blamed?

A similar question troubles all the commentators in parshas Toldos. Yitzchak Ovinu was apparently prepared to give the blessing and spiritual inheritance to Eisav. He would have been the third of the Ovos, if not for Rivka and Yaakov’s last minute trickery. Was Yitzchak unaware that Eisav was a serial sinner? It does not reflect well on our holy patriarch to suggest that Yitzchak was so cut off from his son that he simply hadn’t heard what he was really like. Some mefarshim suggest that Yitzchak knew that Eisav was not the studious type, but he thought that he would be like Zevulun, providing for Yaakov who would continue in the Beis Hamedrash. But Zevulun was a tzaddik. Eisav was a rosho! Any comparison is an insult to Zevulun.

A key to some understanding in this very difficult subject is appreciating Chazal. We often learn aggadic comments of Chazal as children and accept them at face value, never deepening our understanding of what Chazal meant. This is not the place to discuss when we need to accept aggadeta as literally true and when we should understand the message of Chazal without accepting their words literally. The Rambam gives us guidance (Sanhedrin, Perek Chelek,) as does the Maharal. On the subject of Eisav, the Maharitz Chayos in his introduction to Ein Yaakov says that although Chazal said that Eisav transgressed five serious sins when he was fifteen, they did not mean that he really did them but that he was capable of doing them.  Chazal, with their depth of understanding, were commenting on Eisav’s penimius, his neshomo, his inner attitude to life, his true spiritual level. Perhaps we could say “where he was.”

When Hashem asked Odom Harishon after his sin, “Where are you?” the literal meaning is where he physically was. This was just to give him an opening to speak, as Rashi explains. But some understand that Hashem was asking a much deeper question, Where was he, spiritually? Was he still the yetzir kapov, pure handiwork of Hashem or had he veered from that level by sinning?

We imagine Eisav in secular clothes, transgressing every mitzvah of the Torah, with no connection to the Beis Hamedrash, no spiritual connection to Yitzchok, Rivka or Yaakov. Somehow, he fooled Yitzchok into thinking he was a tzaddik at least like Zevulun. This led to our questions earlier. But maybe, as Rav Avigdor Miller implies, (Behold A People p. 65), Eisav was dressed just like Yaakov, kept the same mitzvos as Yaakov, perhaps learning part of the day in the same Beis Hamedrash as Yaakov, spending the rest of the day in the field providing for the family.  Any onlooker would have thought he was indeed the classic Zevulun. Yitzchok might have thought the third of the Ovos should be a role model for all those who don’t sit in the Beis Hamedrash all day.  And he was right, as Yaakov’s life after he had received the brocho showed, which Dorash Dovid points out. But at Yitzchok’s lower level of prophecy he didn’t discern that Eisav was unsuitable for this role. It required Rivka’s depth of prophecy to know that Eisav’s heart was in the wrong place. It was “in the field.” That was his enjoyment in life. Can we describe such an Eisav as a rosho? Yes. Rabbeinu Yona describes somebody whose source of enjoyment is the pleasures of this world rather than serving Hashem, as a rosho. (Sh.T. Shaar 2:18 as explained by Lev Eliyahu Vol 1 P.13) He is on completely the wrong path despite his technical adherence to mitzvos. And he is capable of the worst aveiros even if he hasn’t done any of them, as the Maharitz Chayos explained. This is a chilling thought. We might be sitting in kollel wearing our frack or reckel but if the highlight of our day is our physical pleasures, we are an ish sodeh, Eisav’s spiritual descendant.

Zevulun may be “in the field” but in his heart he is in the Beis Hamedrash.  Yaakov worked for twenty years tending Lovon’s sheep but he remained the ish yoshev oholim.  We can be out and about, trying to provide for our families, but if the highlight of our day is our chavrusa or shiur in the evening, a geshmake Shemone Esrei rather than a geshmake pizza, we are ish yoshev oholim, Yaakov’s spiritual descendant. The question is not what we are doing but where our heart is. Just as Hashem asked Odom Horishon, “Where are you?” we have to ask ourselves, “Where are we?”

The Medresh’s comment, implying that Dina should have married Eisav is a positive message for us. Even if at the moment we still prefer a new car to a new messechta, beautiful clothes to a beautiful esrog, we can change. Under the influence of a good spouse or good friends or good rebbes or, if we are determined, even by ourselves, we can steig. We can grow from being an ish sodeh to being an ish yoshev ohalim.  Dina could have changed Eisav. And that is why Yaakov, in the words of the Medrash, was held responsible.