At the beginning of Parashat VaYishlach, we learn of the much anticipated showdown between Ya'akov and Eisav. The Torah (BeReishit 32:5) states:
“VaYitzav Otam Leimor, Koh Tomerun LaDoni LeEisav, Koh Amar Avdecha Ya’akov Im Lavan Garti, Ve’Eichar Ad Atah”, “And he [Ya’akov] commanded them [the Melachim], saying, so shall you say to my master to Eisav, ‘Thus said your servant Ya'akov, I have lived with Lavan, and I have remained until now.’”
Rashi (ibid.) explains the Pasuk as follows:
“Davar Acher ‘Garti’ BeGematria Taryag, KeLomar ‘Im Lavan HaRasha Garti, VeTaryag Mitzvot Shamarti, VeLo Lamadeti MeMa’asav HaRa’im”, “another explanation, the Gematria of the word ‘Garti’ is equal to 613, as if to say that ‘I lived with Lavan the Rasha, and I kept the 613 Mitzvot, and did not learn from his evil ways.’”
The simple explanation of Rashi is that Ya'akov remained loyal and dedicated to Hashem’s commandments, and that he was not influenced negatively by the surrounding decadent society. However, Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin has a very novel and beautiful understanding of Rashi. What was Ya'akov’s true message? “Yes, I kept all the Mitzvot. However, I did not learn from the actions of Lavan. Indeed, Lavan was a crook and an extremely conniving individual. However, he had great passion and self-sacrifice in all the evil actions that he accomplished. I should have taken his passion, zeal, and sacrifice and used it to perform the Mitzvot.” Ya'akov laments over the fact that he did not implement the characteristics of Lavan in a more righteous lifestyle.
Likewise, we can also learn from Eisav’s personality. In Parashat Toledot, Ya'akov disguised himself as Eisav to secure the Berachot from his father. When Eisav discovered Ya'akov’s plot, he began to weep. The Midrash Tanchuma explains that Hashem blessed Eisav with great peace and tranquility because of these tears. The Zohar, at the end of Parashat Toledot, explains that the heartfelt tears of Eisav placed Bnei Yisrael under his subjugation. As a result, we are currently in a deep and dark exile. The Zohar clarifies that we will only be redeemed when we also sincerely cry out to Hashem. The tears of Eisav put us into the dark exile. When we will have the fortitude to truly feel pain and cry out to Hashem, the exile will finally come to an end.
Similarly, Rabbi Zussia of Anipoli explained that he internalized several characteristics of thieves that helped him in his Avodat Hashem. A thief always works, even at night. If he does not attain his goal the first time, he will continue to work hard to attain his goal the next time. He maintains a sincere love and commitment to his partners in crime. He sacrifices a great amount and works hard to attain small goals. He does not over-value his possessions. If an object is worth a lot of money, he will sell it for a minimal price. Even if he is caught, and they give him lashes or difficult torture, he will never admit to his actions. He will never boast of his accomplishments! He loves his profession very much, and he would not trade it for anything in the world.
We can truly learn from Lavan, Eisav, and the crook, but only their positive character traits. However, unfortunately, some of us fall into a dangerous trap. There are many people in life who do not share our political, worldly, or religious views. Mistakenly, we are stubbornly unwilling to learn anything from them. The Mishnah (Avot 4:1) teaches us the proper perspective: “Ben Zoma Omeir: Eizehu Chacham? HaLomeid MiKol Adam, SheNe’emar ‘MiKol MeLamdai Hiskalti’” , “Ben Zoma says: Who is the wise one? The one who learns from everyone. As it (Tehillim 119:99) states, ‘From all my teachers I gained understanding.’”
Rabbeinu Yonah (4:1) explains that David HaMelech, in the above Pasuk of Tehillim, states that he learned from every single individual. He never disregarded anyone’s knowledge. He was the king, and yet, he was eager and willing to learn from each and every person. Rabbeinu Yonah compares the pursuit of knowledge to someone who lost one of their possessions. He will search around, asking everyone if they had seen it. Similarly, we should always be willing and eager to learn from every person, and doing so will, Be’Ezrat Hashem, enable us to develop into much more wholesome and enlightened people.