The technical term for turning on a computer is to “boot” it up. This term is derived from the idiom, “to pull oneself up by one’s bootstrap,” which came to mean bettering oneself by one's own unaided efforts. This metaphor is borrowed for computers because in order to start a computer, it essentially must be told to run a program to start itself. This metaphor is a fitting description for the some of the most formative events in the life of Yaakov. Imagine being sent away from home as a young adult. Imagine what its like to be on your own with no parental guidance and having to fend for yourself. A few may find this exciting, but most would find it pretty scary.
This is how Yaakov must feel as his mother Rivkah sends him on his own to flee from Eisav to the house of her brother Lavan. As a young man, Yaakov must prepare for adulthood by himself and “pull himself up by his bootstraps.” In the house of Lavan, Yaakov is responsible not only to find a wife for himself, but also to learn about life. This is a challenging experiment for Yaakov in the laboratory of Lavan’s house – will he be able to successfully become the next father of the Jewish people all on his own?
How does Yaakov fare with these responsibilities? Yaakov becomes the husband of two – not just one – of the Arba Imahot and a father of eleven future Jewish leaders while on his own in the house of Lavan. While he learns how to be a husband and father, he also maintains his commitment to Hashem. From the Pasuk, “Im Lavan Garti,” “I lived with Lavan” (BeReishit 32:5), our Rabbis learn that since the letters of the word “Garti” add up to 613, the number of Mitzvot in the Torah, Yaakov keeps the entire Torah while raising himself in the house of Lavan. Yaakov is a faithful Eved Hashem.
Yaakov is able to develop maturity in one more important way. Not only does Yaakov become a good husband, a good father, and an Eved Hashem, he also learns how to function in the real world. He understands that the real world can be a messy and complicated place, one filled with many people of Lavan’s type – people who are willing to deceive others and trick them to get what they want. Lavan is a liar and a cheat, someone brazen enough to manipulate his own daughters in order to trick Yaakov into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. Yet Yaakov is still able to prosper in Lavan’s home and leave with everything he wants – his wives, children, sheep, cattle, and material wealth.
The Torah indicates that Yaakov matures in the house of Lavan and learns about life in the real world in two very similar episodes in the life of Yaakov, one that transpires on his way to Lavan’s house and one that occurs on his way back from Lavan’s house. By contrasting his different reactions in these two events, the Torah marks a significant development in Yaakov’s character.
When Yaakov dreams of the ladder and the angels on the way to Lavan’s house, he fails to realize at first that he is in the presence of Hashem. Only after the experience is over does he realize his mistake and declare, “Achein Yeish Hashem BaMakom HaZeh VeAnochi Lo Yadati,” "Hashem is truly in this place and I didn’t know it” (BeReishit 28:16). After Yaakov leaves Lavan’s house, however, he immediately recognizes Hashem when he encounters Him in Machanayim. The Torah writes, “VeYaakov Halach LeDarko VaYifge’u Bo Malachei Elokim. VaYomer Yaakov KaAsher Ra’am Machaneih Elokim Zeh VaYikra Sheim HaMakom HaHu Machanayim,” “Yaakov went on his way, and angels of Hashem encountered him. Yaakov said when he saw them, ‘This is a camp of God,’ and called the name of the place Machanayim” (BeReishit 32:3).
Parashat VaYishlach begins with this matured Yaakov who has learned about life and family in the house of Lavan and enhanced his relationship with God. Armed with these lessons and abilities, Yaakov is now preparing to meet Eisav. Yaakov must approach Eisav blindly, not knowing whether he will greet him as a brother or as an enemy. Will Eisav reconcile, or will he wage battle? Having matured in the house of Lavan, Yaakov knows that one must be prepared for all possibilities that life can present. Thus, he prepares as a husband, as a father, and as an Eved Hashem. The Torah describes how Yaakov prepares by splitting his camp into two separate camps. He reasons that if Eisav attacks one camp, the other one will be able to escape. The Midrash notes that Yaakov prepares with gifts for Eisav and with prayer to Hashem as he calls out to “Elokei Avi Avraham VEilokei Avi Yitzchak,” “God of my father Avraham and God of my father Yitzchak” (32:10), “Hatzileini Na MiYad Achi MiYad Eisav,” “Please save me from the hand of my brother Eisav” (32:12). Finally, Yaakov prepares a military option.
These strategies are the preparations of someone who is mature and sophisticated. Hashem offers a proof that Yaakov has matured when after Yaakov fights the angel, Hashem decides to change his name from Yaakov to Yisrael. Yaakov is based on the word “Akov,” which means bent or crooked, reflecting someone who must deal with others in less than straightforward ways. After Yaakov takes the Bechorah and the Berachah from Eisav, Eisav insightfully declares “Hachi Kara Shemo Yaakov VaYakeveini Zeh Pa’amayim,” “This is why his name is Yaakov, for he has tricked me twice” (BeReishit 27:36). Now that Yaakov has matured, however, Hashem changes his name to Yisrael. One meaning of Yisrael can be found in its nickname found throughout Tanach – Yeshurun. Yeshurun comes from the word “Yashar,” straight. Now that Yaakov has matured, he knows how to deal with people in a straightforward manner. The Navi Yeshayahu describes this when he states, “VeHayah HeAkov LeMishor,” “The crooked will be straightened” (Yeshayahu 40:4).
We have the responsibility to emulate Yeshurun – the forthright manner in which Yaakov addresses the challenges in his life. Yaakov’s three tactics – gifts, prayer, and action – serve as a formula by which to address life’s challenges. The gifts represent the need always to be kind and generous to others. The second tactic, Tefilah, indicates that we must always recognize God’s hand in our lives and maintain our commitment to His Torah and Mitzvot. Finally, just as Yaakov prepares to do battle, his third tactic, we must be ready to defend the Torah and its values by spreading the word of Hashem wherever we go.