After leaving the house of Lavan, Yaakov Avinu encounters his brother Eisav for the first time since fleeing his home. Yaakov sends messengers to inform Eisav “Im Lavan Garti, VaEichar Ad Attah,” “I have lived with Lavan and lingered until now” (BeReishit 32:5). Rashi (ad. loc. s.v. Garti) comments that this missive contains a secret message: “Im Lavan HaRasha Garti, VeTaryag Mitzvot Shamarti,” “I lived with the wicked Lavan, yet I kept all 613 Mitzvot.” The Gematriya of the word “Garti” is 613 (“Taryag”), the number of the Mitzvot in the Torah. The hidden message is that although Yaakov has been living with Lavan for the last two decades, he has not been negatively influenced by the environment. Through his message, Yaakov is effectively warning Eisav that this Zechut will protect Yaakov from any harm Eisav may wish to do to him.
Interestingly enough, the Torah mentions later in the Parashah (35:2) that Yaakov Avinu tells his children to remove all the idols from their midst. This is a very strange incident, as one would have thought that the children of Yaakov would not be involved in idolatry. This is especially true in light of the aforementioned Midrash that Rashi quotes, in which he explains that Yaakov Avinu was not negatively influenced by Lavan’s presence. Nevertheless, the simple reading of the Pasuk seems to imply that the sons of Yaakov were negatively impacted by the influence of Lavan, and were in possession of Avodah Zarah.
There is yet another strange incident mentioned later on in the Parashah. The Torah suddenly tells us that Devorah, Rivkah’s [childhood] nursemaid, dies. Rashi (35:8. s.v. VaTamot Devorah) comments that this incident is actually an allusion to the death of Rivkah, as her death is not mentioned elsewhere in the Torah.
Perhaps these two seemingly random occurrences are connected to one another. While Yaakov certainly did everything in his power to teach his children about Judaism, there was one thing he could not provide for them: Jewish grandparents. Without the positive influence of their grandparents, Yitzchak and Rivkah, Yaakov’s children fell under the influence of Avodah Zarah, which is why Yaakov is forced to confront them about the issue. This would explain why Devorah’s death is mentioned. If, in fact, her death alludes to the absence of Rivkah and her influence, it makes sense why it is mentioned only a few Pesukim after the incident of the idolatry. The idea being emphasized is that Rivkah, who would have provided the positive influence of a Jewish grandparent, was sorely missing in the lives of Yaakov’s children. This is why Rivkah’s name is mentioned here in connection with her nursemaid’s death; the Torah is trying to emphasize the importance of the influence of Jewish grandparents.
This same idea appears in explaining the Midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 70:12) which says that Yaakov arrived at the house of Lavan completely empty-handed. Why did Yaakov arrive without any wealth? Another Midrash (Devarim Rabbah 2:20) states that Eliphaz, Eisav’s son, had come across Yaakov and had been ordered by his father to kill him. Instead of killing Yaakov Avinu, as Eliphaz wished to do, Eliphaz took all of his wealth, which was nearly as good as killing him in his eyes, for a poor person is considered dead (Nedarim 64b). Why didn’t Eliphaz kill Yaakov anyway? What was the purpose of making Yaakov like a dead man and not actually a dead man? Rashi (BeReishit 29:11 s.v. VaYeivk) answers that it was due to the influence of his grandfather Yitzchak. Eliphaz, despite being raised by Eisav, had also grown up in the presence of a righteous grandfather. Eliphaz couldn’t kill Yaakov, for doing so would disappoint his grandfather; the influence of his grandfather prevented him from committing a terrible crime.
Just as the presence of Yitzchak influenced Eliphaz to refrain from bloodshed, the absence of the Jewish grandparent in the lives of Yaakov’s children made a tremendous impact in the negative sense. While the influence of the father is certainly very important, having the influence of the grandparents connects one to the Mesorah of the Jewish people, and it is critically important to remember how that can impact the lives of our children.
This Devar Torah is based on an idea of Rav Daniel Fridman, Sgan Rosh HaYeshiva of TABC.