What does it really mean to be a shomer Torah u’mitzvos?
As Yaakov Avinu prepared for their showdown, he sent Eisav a critical message: im Lavan garti, with Lavan I have lived (B’reishis 32:5). Rashi points out that the Hebrew word garti has the numerical value 613, hinting to taryag mitzvos shamarti. In other words, Yaakov was warning Eisav that despite the decades he spent living in the house of the evil Lavan, he had remained observant of all the mitzvos. This merit would protect Yaakov from any attacks Eisav may have been planning.
There’s just one problem with Yaakov’s claim that he had observed all 613 mitzvos: It wasn’t true! While living with Lavan in chutz la’aretz, he was certainly unable to fulfill the mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisrael, or perform its special mitzvos (e.g., t’rumah, maaser, etc.). Furthermore, Chazal highlight Yaakov’s inability to perform kibud av va’eim during his 22 years away from home (Megillah 17a). So how could Yaakov brazenly assert that he had “done it all” when he clearly had not been able to fulfill many mitzvos in the house of Lavan?
In order to understand what Yaakov was saying, we need a more precise definition of Rashi’s word “shamarti.” Colloquially, the word lishmor (to observe) is understood as a synonym for “to do.” One who is shomer Shabbos is someone who acts a certain way: He closes his business for the day and makes Kiddush over a cup of wine.
However, Chazal understand the term differently. A shomer is someone who sits and watches. He is “observant” – not only in action – but in heightened attention and interest. For example, in next week’s parshah, the Torah uses the word “shamar” to describe Yaakov’s reaction to Yosef’s dreams (37:11). Rashi (ad loc.) explains that Yaakov was filled with eager anticipation for the day when Yosef’s prophecies would come to fruition. With this new definition, a shomer Shabbos is not merely a person who practices the technical rituals of the day, but one who longingly and excitedly awaits for the arrival of Shabbos each week (Or HaChayim Sh’mos 31:16).
When Yaakov declared taryag mitzvos shamarti, he did not mean that he had technically performed all 613 mitzvos – he hadn’t! Instead, Yaakov maintained that despite his inability to perform the action of many mitzvos during his years with Lavan, he had never lost his strong attachment to them. It was specifically because he was not able to live in Eretz Yisrael or care for his parents, that he had increased his yearning and eager anticipation for the opportunity when he could do so once again. What Yaakov was so confident would protect him from Eisav was not a technical, rote checklist of mitzvah actions, but an outlook and a lifestyle of excitement for Hashem’s mitzvos. As long as he was missing the mitzvos, he was not missing out!
We can learn from Yaakov Avinu to be “shomer Torah u’mitzvos” with not just physical action, but with eager anticipation and excitement, as well!