"I Have Lived with Laban": Our Galut in the Secular World

The Har Nof slaughter is just the latest atrocity in a history of atrocities perpetrated against Jews. The wickedness pressing in around us feels relentless. It is enough to make us seek stronger walls and wider moats to keep the world at bay.

But walling ourselves off from the world has never been an option. We are in the world. We are of the world. We must not only engage the world, but to be stronger for that engagement. It is not enough to merely survive. We must thrive, physically, psychologically and spiritually. Those who survived the physical slaughter at the Har Nof synagogue returned on Thursday to recite HaGomel. As Rav Rubin related to Rav Shteinman and Rav Kanievsky, “There has never been such HaGomels ever recited!”

To survive such a direct confrontation with the Angel of Death as they did is beyond human vocabulary. Har Nof. Treblinka. Poland, 1648-49. Hebron, 1929. In instances too numerous to list, we have been terrorized. And each time, we returned to recite HaGomel. Yet, perhaps it is the profound threat of these instances, the life and death nature of them, that encourages piety. Perhaps the more difficult task is to live in the secular world, to live with Laban, and to maintain our dignity and spirituality.

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Before confronting Esau face to face, Jacob sent emissaries to transmit a message that begins, Im Laban garti – I have sojourned with Laban and I have lingered until now.

This is all true. Jacob lived (garti) around Laban but he always remained a stranger, a ger. He left his childhood home years before and then, as Rabbi Soloveitchik explains, lived “a long night of darkness, misery and distress.” It is no easy task to survive an environment that is antithetical to one’s upbringing but Jacob emphasizes that he had not “gone off the derech.” As Rashi declares, “I have sojourned with Laban, yet I observed the 613 mitzvos.”

He had ample opportunity not to! Certainly the twenty-plus years he sojourned with Laban was more than enough time to lose his identity and traditions, to learn and embrace the ways of Laban. But Jacob asserts that he did not. “He had not assimilated; he had not integrated himself into Laban’s society and community; he had not accepted their morals, their code of ethics, or their lifestyle.” (Rav Soloveitchik)

He was as dedicated at the end of his servitude in Laban’s house as he was that first night he spent on the cold stones of Beth El.

With Chanukah approaching, we are reminded of how difficult it is to remain faithful in Galus. Indeed, Galus is the ultimate Rorschach test for all Jewish generations. How we understand and react to this reality defines us. We cannot avoid it. Galus is our reality. There are no walls tall enough nor moat wide enough to hold it at bay. As frightening as that is, the truth is that there can be no Geula without Galus.

The question for each generation and for each of us is, Do we have what it takes to live through Galus, to be able to declare as Jacob did to Esau, “I have made it through Laban!” Implicit in his declaration was that he would survive all that Esau might have in store for him and his descendants, he would remain true and preserve Abraham’s covenant.

To be fully Jewish has nothing to do with time or place. Im Laban garti. Jacob sojourned with Laban and maintained his commitment. He tells us so himself! Which raises an interesting question, Is it appropriate for someone of Jacob’s religious and spiritual stature to “sing his own praise”?

While it seems that is exactly what Jacob was doing, Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin suggests another perspective, a novel perspective that suggests a way for us to engage our Galus. It’s true, Jacob admits, I did observe the Taryag mitzvoth in Laban’s environment, but I did not absorb any lessons from Laban’s approach (Lo lamadti mi’maasav ha’rayim). What is there after all to learn from Laban? The answer, Rav Meir Shapiro teaches, is that inasmuch as a person is obligated to serve God with every facet of his life, one must constantly be alert to new ways to achieve those goals. Just as one who seeks wealth is always on the lookout for new opportunities to increase his wealth, so too must we be looking for ways to increase our spiritual well-being. After all, when I see the lengths people go to in order to fulfill their carnal desires… how much more should I be willing to go to achieve my spiritual goals?

Rabbi Meir Shapiro makes clear that, far from boasting, Jacob was taking himself to task. “I lived with Laban all those years, I observed how single-minded he was in pursuit of his worldly desires. He let nothing get in his way. But I did not learn a lesson from him that could have enhanced my life. Yes, I observed Taryag mitzvoth, but I never achieved the same fervor in pursuing my spiritual goals. My excitement in observing mitzvoth paled to his thrill in pursuing his meaningless goals.”

Im Laban…

We too often assume that our learning and observance must be measured against the finest and best among us. But such a perspective invites a sense of failure. How can I possibly live up to the standards and achievements of the Chofetz Chaim or Rav Aaron Kotler or Rav Moshe Feinstein? Wiser to evaluate our achievements not against the best but against the worst. Im Laban… It sounds odd. It feels odd. But isn’t that what Rav Shapiro’s teaching suggests? I cannot expect to be like Reb Moshe ZTL or Reb Yaakov ZTL but I can exceed the Labans of the world! I can certainly match the time and determination of those who instill fear and trembling in the world even if I can never match the time and spirituality of the best among us!

The Chofetz Chaim was once told about the seemingly enormous success of the missionaries throughout Europe.

“Oy vey!” the poor Jew cried. “What can we do to respond to all of this sheker, these lies, they are spreading?”

The Chofetz Chaim smiled. “If we were to work for the emes (truth) with an emes (genuine sincerity) like they work for the sheker with an emes, I can assure you that we would experience enormous success.”

Im Laban…