Jacob’s honesty in his business dealings teaches us that true righteousness must permeate every aspect of our lives, from the holy to the mundane.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion is “Vayeitzei” (Genesis 28:10–32:3), and in it we read about Jacob’s marriages to Leah, Rachel, Bilha, and Zilpa (who, according to some sources, were all sisters), and by extension, Jacob’s very turbulent relationship with his father-in-law, Laban.
At the end of the reading there is somewhat of a reconciliation between Jacob and Laban. At this meeting, a bunch of stones are made into a pile. Laban calls the pile of stones “Yegar Sahadusa,” which is an Aramaic phrase, while Jacob calls it “Gal Ed,” which is a Hebrew phrase.
The commentators note that this passage is one of the sources that our forefathers never changed their language and spoke in Hebrew whenever possible. Keeping in mind the famous teaching that “the ways of the forefathers are meant as instructions to their descendants,” this small detail may have significant importance.
Our sages teach us that when Abraham was forced to go down to Egypt due to the famine in the land of Israel, he laid the “spiritual groundwork” that would allow the Jewish people to survive in Egypt when they were forced into slavery.
We are told that one of the things that helped the Jewish people survive slavery was the fact that they did not change their language, their names, or their style of dress. Regarding the former, where did the Jewish people get the idea of not changing their language?
You got it! Right here in this week’s Torah portion where Jacob insisted on naming the pile of stones in Hebrew. This was a type of “instruction to descendants” that Hebrew should be used whenever possible. The importance, and hopefully, the love of the Hebrew language was stamped into our DNA.
Another example of “the ways of the forefathers are meant as instructions to their descendants” that we inherited from Jacob is the instinct to survive exile from our land and later return. Jacob had to leave the land of Israel after his brother Esau threatened to kill him for “stealing” the firstborn blessings.
He later returned when Esau’s anger subsided. This is the story of the Jewish people. Twice we were exiled and twice we returned.
But there is one more important Jacobian lesson that we must internalize and make part of our DNA. It can be found in the dialogue between Jacob and Laban. When they meet in order to make peace, Laban asks Jacob to explain his “dishonesty.”
“ … [Me? Dishonest?] What is my sin? When you searched my belongings did you find anything that was yours? These last twenty years that I have been with you, your animals never miscarried nor did I eat from your flocks. I never brought you injured animals, I bore the loss myself. You would blame me for stolen animals. I sweated during the days, froze at nights, and never slept.” [Genesis 31:36-42].
Jacob defended himself. He never stole. He never cheated. And he made that clear. He was the perfect employee and businessman. The question we must ask ourselves is whether we have this Jacobian trait ingrained into our DNA as well. Can we look into the mirror and assert that we never cheated in business? That we are honest? That we occasionally go beyond the call of duty. That we are willing to absorb a loss for the sake of another person. This may very well be the most important part of being a Jew, a true descendant of Jacob.
For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.
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