“The 613 Club” — Parashat Vayishlach 5776

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin describes something called “The 612 Club”. These are people who have decided that a certain mitzvah is either not worth their while or that it’s just too difficult to perform. They scrupulously keep all the mitzvot other than this particular one. Rabbi Riskin has particularly harsh words for these people. This week’s Parasha discusses a person who was a card-carrying member of “The 613 Club”.

Yaakov Avinu goes from the frying pan into the fire. He flees from his father-in-law, Lavan, and with the help of some divine intervention he escapes with his life.  No sooner does he leave Lavan that he encounters his brother, Esav, who is coming to kill him because he is still angry about the blessings that he stole from him years earlier. Yaakov takes the bull by the horns and sends a message of greeting to Esav [Bereishit 31:5]: “I have lived with Lavan and I have tarried until now”. Rashi notes that the word “garti” – “I have lived” – has the numerical value (gematriya) of six hundred and thirteen, the number of mitzvot in the Torah. Rashi asserts that Yaakov was hinting to Esav that he had kept all of the mitzvot in the Torah all the while he was at Lavan’s home. According to the Siftei Chachamim, Yaakov was alluding to a blessing that Yitzchak gave to Esav [Bereishit 27:40] “You shall live by your sword and you shall serve your brother, and it will be, when you break loose, that you will break his yoke off your neck”. The understanding is that Esav will only “break loose” when Yaakov no longer deserves to rule over him. Yaakov is telling Esav “Don’t think that I have forsaken Hashem, and as a result have forfeited my right to my blessings. I kept the entire Torah while I was at Lavan’s house. Your time has not come.”

The obvious problem is how Yaakov could claim that he kept all six hundred and thirteen of the mitzvot in the Torah. No one person can keep the entire Torah. Some mitzvot pertain only to a Kohen and others pertain only to a person who is not a Kohen. Some mitzvot pertain only to a man and others pertain only to a woman. Some mitzvot can’t be sought out – they just fall out of the sky at random, like shiluach ha’ken (shooing away the mother bird). It is also clear that Yaakov did not perform certain mitzvot that he theoretically could have performed. For instance, he did not divorce his wife and he did not give her a get. How, then, can Yaakov boast to Esav that he has kept “all 613 commandments” when the average person can keep less than 400 of them?[1]

We asked this question a few years ago[2], and we brought a stunning interpretation by Rav Moshe Sternbuch. Referring back to the Rashi where Yaakov tells Esav that he has kept all six hundred and thirteen mitzvot, Rav Sternbuch notes that Rashi uses the Hebrew word “shamarti” – “kept”. Usually, one would have expected the word “kiyamti” – “performed” to have been used. Rav Sternbuch directs us to a verse in Bereishit [37:11] where Yaakov considers the meaning of his son Joseph’s dreams. The verse says “V’aviv shamar et hadavar” – “his father kept the saying in mind”. Here, Rashi interprets the word “shamar” as “looked forward to its coming to fruition, asking ‘when will this happen already?’” Yaakov did not actually perform all six hundred and thirteen mitzvot while he was in exile working for Lavan. But each day for the twenty years he was in exile with Lavan, Yaakov would pray to return home and to see the day when he could actually perform all of the mitzvot, or at least as many of them as possible. When he told Esav that he had “kept” all of the mitzvot, he was telling Esav, “I have not forgotten who I am or where I belong.”

That was the answer we gave twelve years ago. This year we’re going to add another layer to this explanation. It is generally agreed that Esav is a model for how a child should honour his parents. Rabbi Gamliel states in the Midrash that he only wishes that he could honour his parents half as much as Esav honoured Yitzchak. One of the reasons that Yaakov is frightened of his encounter with Esav is because Esav has merited honouring his father the whole time that Yaakov was in exile with Lavan. The truth is, however, that Yaakov had nothing to fear – he had some merit of his own.

The Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin [31b] discusses two mitzvot that pertain to the relationship between a child and his parents: in Parashat Yitro we are told [Shemot 20:12] “Honour your father and your mother”, and in Parashat Kedoshim we are commanded [Vayikra 19:3] “A man shall fear his mother and his father”. What is the difference between “honouring” one’s parents and “fearing” them? The Talmud answers that “fear” entails the recognition of their authority by not standing in their place at shul, not sitting in their seat at home, and not contradicting them. “Honour”, on the other hand, entails making sure that they are well-dressed, well-fed, and well-taken care of. Rav J.B. Soloveichik, writing in the 1953 Yahrzeit Shiur, uses the Talmud’s definitions to reveal the essence of “honour” and “fear”[3]:

We learn from the Torah that Esav, even more than Yaakov, had a tremendous amount of honour for his father… This did not stem from a special endearment or all-consuming love for Yitzchak. Honour often arises out of an instinctive feeling of self-preservation, as the son knows that a time will come when he himself will require the same assistance that his father currently needs. Honour can be found in the animal kingdom as well – young eagles provide for older eagles that can no longer fly. Our Sages portrayed Esav as a master of honour… The true gauge of a relationship between father and son is not in the mitzvah of honour, but rather in the mitzvah of fear. Fear is not an instinct; one has to display genuine understanding to show love and humility towards his or her parents. One manifestation of this distinction is that “honour” is a mitzvah that can only be fulfilled while the parent is alive, but “fear” applies even after a parent’s death. It represents a deeper more profound appreciation of the people who our parents are.

As long as Yaakov was away from home, he did not have the ability to honour his parents. The great distance made honour physically impossible. Esav, on the other hand, did not have the capability of fearing his parents, no matter how close or far away he was. Esav could not accept authority. After Yaakov steals his blessings Esav says [Bereishit 27:41] “Let the days of mourning for my father draw near and I will then murder my brother Yaakov.” As soon as Yitzchak dies, Esav is free. Esav’s honour was temporary, Yaakov’s fear was eternal. This is Yaakov’s message to Esav: “I was a thousand miles away from our parents but at the same time I was closer to them than you ever were.”

Moshe Rabbeinu wanted to live in the Land of Israel more than anything else in the world. Why was this so important to him? The Talmud in Tractate Sotah [14a] says that it is obvious that Moshe did not want to cross the Jordan River so that he could eat some good Jaffa oranges or dates from Beit Shean. What he did desire was the ability to perform mitzvot that can only be performed in Israel. Millions of Jews are living today in thriving communities in the Diaspora. For the time being, they cannot perform the very same mitzvot that Moshe could not perform. However, there are certain mitzvot that they can perform while I, who live in Israel, cannot: They can invite visitors back home from shul for a Shabbat meal (People don’t “happen” to be in Moreshet for Shabbat). They can choose to wear a kippa in public (This is only challenge in Moreshet if it’s windy). They can give their time, energy, and money to an organization like AIPAC to help empower the State of Israel.

No one person can perform all of the mitzvot. The best we can do is to actively embrace the mitzvot that we are capable of performing, all the time striving to do even more.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka, Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Shaul Chaim ben Tziviya

[1] This number is for Israeli’s. The Chafetz Chaim writes in Sefer Ha’Mitzvot Ha’Katzar that there are 77 positive mitzvot and 194 negative mitzvot which can be observed outside of the Land of Israel today.

[2] Vayishlach 5763

[3] These words have been paraphrased by Rabbi Mayer Simcha Stromer.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.