Vayetze- Aramean Afflictions

One of the oldest and most widely accepted traditions in the Jewish world is to sit down once (or twice) every year and do a brief review of Jewish history leading up to our redemption from Egypt, in commemoration of the miracles involved in that גאולה. However, to those who are well versed in the Torah or in Jewish history, one of the opening words of Magid on Pesach night seem particularly perplexing:
צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּש לָבָן הָאֲרַמִי לַעֲשׂות לְיַעֲקב אָבִינוּ: שֶׁפַּרְעה לא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים, וְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקור אֶת הַכּל. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר:
אֲרַמִּי אבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט, וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוי גָּדול, עָצוּם וָרָב.
Go out and learn what Laban the Aramite wanted to do to Yaakov Avinu- for Pharoah only decreed against the males, but Laban tried to destroy them all, as it says “An Aramite destroyed our forefather, and we went down to Egypt as a small nation, but became a big and powerful nation there”
This גמרא, quoting a פסוק in דברים, makes a serious accusation: that Laban’s actions against Yaakov Avinu were worse than Pharoah’s genocide against the Jewish people. However, as we read through this week’s פרשה, it is hard to find evidence of this so-called spiritual holocaust- the worst that Laban did was tricking Yaakov into marrying his daughter Leah for seven years of work, which, according to many דרשנים, was destined to happen anyway. Where exactly is this “ארמי אבד אבי”?
If we look closer into the end of the פרשה, at יעקב and לבן’s final encounter, subtle themes begin to unfold, ones that were not originally mentioned in the text during Yaakov’s stay in Haran.
After יעקב and (mainly) לבן exchange grievances, they make a treaty and name their current location after the agreement. Laban, in his native Aramean tongue, calls the place Yegar-Sahduta, while יעקב names it Gal’ed in Ancient Hebrew (Lashon Hakodesh-the Holy language). Sforno there makes an interesting deduction from the seemingly uneccesary mentioning of that place’s name in לועזי- He teaches that, while in חרן, Laban did his absolute best to keep יעקב from speaking in the holy tongue, and very much tried to raise יעקב’s kids in the Aramean ways. But, we see from יעקב’s insistence of calling the place Gal’ed, and לבן’s eventual agreement to also call it that (“וַיֹּאמֶר לָבָן, הַגַּל הַזֶּה עֵד בֵּינִי וּבֵינְךָ הַיּוֹם; עַל-כֵּן קָרָא-שְׁמוֹ, גַּלְעֵד”) that יעקב was in the end sucessful in raising his kids in the proper lifestyle of a descendant of אברהם אבינו, even in the depths of his Aramean Exile. Nonetheless, חז”ל cite this as one example of “ארמי אבד אבי”.
Further on, לבן swears to peace with יעקב in a very holy and multi-denominational way. He says ” אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם וֵאלֹהֵי נָחוֹר, יִשְׁפְּטוּ בֵינֵינוּ–אֱלֹהֵי, אֲבִיהֶם- The G-d of Avraham, and the god of Nahor, the god of our ancestors, shall judge between us (בראשית לא:נג). While this statement seems to be an innocent way of Laban reminding Yaakov of their inherent uncle-nephew relationship, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky belives that this is another example of Laban’s spiritual attacks on Yaakov. He explains that this statement, on a basic level, merely seems to be Laban showing a common ground between him and Yaakov- their common ancestor Terach served a god, so why not swear on that one? However, there is an inherent problem with this- By accepting a covenant in the name of any god besides for ours, one would be giving legitimacy to that god. Yet, bringing Terach and Nahor’s god into the picture brought a conflicting כיבוד אב and family honor issue. Nonentheless, Yaakov does not fall in this trap, and we see “וַיִּשָּׁבַע יַעֲקֹב, בְּפַחַד אָבִיו יִצְחָק- And Yaakov swore on the Dread of his father Yitzchak (our G-d, and no other).”
So, we see two distinct examples of לבן’s attempt to spiritually wipe out our nation before it event existed. Yet, Yaakov and his sizable family, with the help of G-d alone, were able to avoid it until they could run away back to ארץ כנען. It is definitely no coincidence that immediately preceeding this teaching of ארמי אבד אבי is:
וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבותֵינוּ וְלָנוּ. שֶׁלּא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּותֵנוּ,  אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּור וָדור עומְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלותֵנוּ, וְהַקָּדושׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם.
And there are those who stood up to our forefathers and us, yet none of them managed to succeed, so in every generation there will be more who will stand to destroy us. But G-d will save us from their hands every time.
There are different types of שאיבוד- sometimes there are the פרעהs and המןs, who try to wipe us out physically even as we grow, and then there are the לבןs, who try to destroy us spiritually. This song warns us that in every generation, there will always be someone trying to destroy us- it’s just a question of which kind. The fact that the הגדה first lists “ארמי אבד אבי” and quotes a גמרא warning us of it, shows us precisely how dangerous that type of איבוד is. Our only consolation is “והקדוש ברוך הוא מצילנו מידם” G-d will always save us from their hands in the end, though whether it will be before any harm is done to us, or after 6 million of our bretheren are killed, is the real question.
I believe that in our times, we are in a little bit of a bind. There is clearly a פרעה-esque situation going on, with the Palestinians and Arabs trying on a daily basis to reduce the already-small Jewish population. However, there is also a more subtle איבוד going on as well, more in line with “ארמי אבד אבי.” American Jewry, once one of the strongest bases of Jews in the world, has taken a turn in recent years. In the recently released Pew Study of American Jewry, there were some very concerning facts and statistics brought to light:
* 62% of American Jews surveyed believe that Jewish Identity is only a cultural issue, not one of lifestyle and future
* When given a list of things that are important in their lives, only 43% of those surveyed put Israel on that list, leaving it one percentage point above “having a good sense of humor,” which came in at a whopping 42%
* 22% of Orthodox Jews surveyed handled business matters on Shabbat
(In a different study by the AJC,) 43% believed that Israel should have separation of religion and state, which goes directly against the ideals of the Jewish State.
* Even more worryingly, 68% of surveyed American Jews believe that one can be Jewish but not believe in G-d, and 34% believe that one can be Jewish and believe in Jesus
While most of the above are kind of sad and scary, the most worrying outcome of the study was the 58% Intermarriage rate. With the Jewish population of America weighing in at 6,721,680, the 58% who have intermarried and are lost as לבן tried to make יעקב lost, are at least 3,900,00, more than 50% of the amount killed in the שואה, with no sign of it stoppping in the future. American Jewry is clearly in a sad state, and it doesn’t seem like it’ll be heading in the right direction any day soon.
However, for those who are still Torah observant (truly Jewish) in America, there is still one last option. Yaakov Avinu, facing spiritual destruction by Laban, realized that there was only one way to be saved- to follow G-d’s instruction, and  “שׁוּב אֶל-אֶרֶץ אֲבוֹתֶיךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתֶּךָ; וְאֶהְיֶה, עִמָּךְ- Return to the land of your forefathers, where you grew up. [When you get there,] I’ll be with you.” Yaakov is promised that when he returns to ארץ כנען, G-d will be personally join him, something which is fulfilled when Yaakov parts from Laban and encounters a “camp of Angels of G-d” in מחניים. Since the beginning of its existence, the Jewish People has only been able to flourish under G-d’s direct supervision, and we’ve already learned that only ארץ ישראל has the highest levels of divine supervision. When we leave this supervision, whether willingly or not, for the dangers of the גלות, we eventually see tragedy, whether המן’s attempted annihlation of the Jewish People, the Spanish Inquisition, the German Shoah, or now, the American religious crisis. Our only recourse to avoid any further casualties in the spiritual battle in the United States is to come back home, to “ארץ אבותיך” so that we can merit G-d’s protection and continue to grow as a nation without any further איבודים.
פרשת ויצא, the פרשה which contains the entire story of לבן’s attempted destruction, contains a total of 148 פסוקים. Rav David Feinstein, through גמטריה, equates this פרשה to the world “חלקי” which also equals 148. He teaches that our פרשה is likened to חלקי because it contains the birth of 11 out of the 12 tribes of G-d’s chosen nation, his חלקי. I believe that this can be taken a step further in the context of our modern predicament and solution. We, the Jewish People, are G-d’s חלקי, his עם סגולה. Unfortuantely, too many of us are straying from the path that we are meant to walk, and we are losing the uphill battle of maintaining this status of the chosen people, the חלקי. But, we are not G-d’s only חלקי- G-d also has a chosen land, destined for his chosen nation. Our only hope of maintaining our “חלקי” status is by embracing G-d’s other “חלקי,” and through the combined קדושה and השראת השכינה, we can merit to live long and happy lives in ארץ ישראל, with the coming of the משיח and all of עם ישראל united in עבודת השם, very speedily in our days.