This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, begins, “And Jacob sent angels before him to greet Esau, his brother.” Jacob entrusted the angels with a message: “Im Lavan garti – I have sojourned with Laban.” In these words Jacob summed up the approach he had taken toward Laban throughout his years in Charan: “garti – I have sojourned,” i.e., I was only a temporary visitor and never fully at ease.
To Jacob, the mundane affairs of this world were extraneous, removed from his true self and concerns. In Laban’s household Jacob was like a ger – a stranger who was only passing through. His interest did not lie in the pursuit of wealth or material riches. Rather, Jacob’s true “home” was in the realm of the soul, in Torah study and the observance of mitzvot (commandments). Jacob only felt himself at home, truly at ease and comfortable, when he was involved in the service of G-d.
The Torah states, “He built himself a house, and for his cattle he made booths.” For “himself,” his true self, Jacob built a “house” – a permanent dwelling. For his “cattle,” his material possessions, Jacob built booths – assigning them only marginal importance, like a suka that is designed only for temporary residence.
In this light, we may better understand the explanation of Rashi, the foremost Torah commentator, on the verse “I have sojourned with Laban”: “And I have observed the 613 commandments.”
In Hebrew letters the number 613 is written taf, reish, yud gimmel – the same letters that form the word “garti” – sojourned. Jacob was informing Esau that despite his extended stay in Laban’s household he managed to keep all of the Torah’s mitzvot. How? By relating to the physical world and to Laban as being only temporal and transient.
The Maggid of Mezeritch used to say: “At home, it is different.” A person’s home is his castle; a home must contain all the amenities of life. When a person travels, however, it is not so important if his temporary dwelling is furnished beautifully, for the time spent there is only minimal.
The Jewish people in exile are only “on the road.” We are not yet in our true home; rather, we are more like strangers on a temporary visit to a foreign land. Our entire experience in exile is expressed in Jacob’s message to Esau: “garti – I am only a sojourner.”
The road we are on is the road to the Final Redemption, which, for the Jew, represents true life. In the Days of Moshiach, we will finally be at “home,” in our permanent dwelling, engaged in our real task of serving G-d. Indeed, by relating to the physical world and its affairs with this in mind we hasten the Redemption, may it happen immediately.