Changed by Oppression: Commentary on Parashat Vayyishlach 5783
By: Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary

Make me a grave where’er you will,

In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;

Make it among earth’s humblest graves,

But not in a land where men are slaves.


So begins the poem, “Bury Me in a Free Land,” written by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in 1858, the year when she most famously refused to ride in the “colored” section of a trolley car in Philadelphia. Despite being born free in the United States, Harper committed much of her literary and activist efforts to the abolitionist movement; she recognized just how deeply slavery had stained the moral fabric of her native country.

Stripping a human being of their freedom deflates the human spirit, to say the least. It is therefore a mark of ethical fortitude when a beaten down soul can emerge from enslavement and emerge with profound empathy for others.

Our ancestor Jacob, in Parashat Vayyishlach, presents himself as someone who fell into meaningless servitude but returned to society with a more mature sense of responsibility. We will never know the exact cruelties that Jacob faced when he endured some twenty years of serving Laban (see Genesis 31:41). We know that Jacob himself had been a trickster—having  swindled from his father the blessing of the firstborn, originally intended for Jacob’s older twin brother Esau (as recalled in Genesis 27). Whatever Laban did beyond the acts of deception the Torah reports (such as Laban’s giving Leah and not the requested daughter in marriage to Jacob in Genesis 29:20–25)—Jacob learned that he had met his match in duplicity. Chicanery as a lifestyle is exhausting and a waste of everyone’s time though. As Jacob prepares to for a reunion with his brother after several decades, Jacob, in Genesis 34:5–6, formulates some words of reconciliation for his messengers to pass on to Esau:


כֹּ֣ה תֹאמְר֔וּן לַֽאדֹנִ֖י לְעֵשָׂ֑ו כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ עַבְדְּךָ֣ יַעֲקֹ֔ב עִם־לָבָ֣ן גַּ֔רְתִּי וָאֵחַ֖ר עַד־עָֽתָּה: וַֽיְהִי־לִי֙ שׁ֣וֹר וַחֲמ֔וֹר צֹ֖אן וְעֶ֣בֶד וְשִׁפְחָ֑ה וָֽאֶשְׁלְחָה֙ לְהַגִּ֣יד לַֽאדֹנִ֔י לִמְצֹא־חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶֽיךָ׃

So shall you say to my master, to Esau: “Thus said your servant Jacob: ‘With Laban I have lived, va’echar [וָאֵחַר, “I became acher”] through now. I acquired oxen, donkeys, herds, slaves, and maids. I have sent forward to inform my master so as to seek grace in your eyes.’”


Certain turns of phrase in Jacob’s language read like standard biblical fare nowadays, but the truth is that, before Jacob, the only person in the Hebrew Bible who referred to himself as “your servant” was Abraham (in Genesis 18:3, 18:5, 19:2, and 19:19). This sign of Jacob having matured is a testament to Jacob’s humbling that came with his humiliation. He left his indentured servitude a changed man. Most commentators and translators understand that, by Jacob saying “va’echar,” he is describing himself as having become “delayed” (for the root of alefchetreysh [א-ח-ר] can relate to postponement). However, the word acher (אַחֵר, from the same root) means “other.” The American-Israeli Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin of blessed memory (1945–2020), writing in his Torah commentary, Kuntres Chibbah Yeterah, depicted Jacob as saying, “נעשיתי אחר מכפי שהכרת” (“I have become more different than you could identify”).

Servitude altered Jacob to a point beyond recognition. He had become less of a troublemaker and more of peacemaker, less of a grifter and more of a gifter. Laban’s attempts to weaken Jacob’s ego miraculously resulted in Jacob trying to boost the confidence of those around him. The pain embedded in Jacob’s message to his brother as the younger twin sought a reunion would still ring through though for many centuries to come. In the early 1860s, Jacob’s words were adapted in “עַד לֹא זָקַנְתִּי, עֵת לֹא יָשַׁנְתִּי” (“Before I Have Grown Old, Before I Have Slept”) by the Italian Jew Rachel Morpurgo, the first woman whose modern Hebrew poetry remains preserved today:

עַד לֹא זָקַנְתִּי, עֵת לֹא יָשַׁנְתִּי

.הַסְכֵּן הִסְכַּנְתִּי, לֵאמֹר שִׁירָה

עִם לָבָן גַּרְתִּי, לָכֵן אֵחַרְתִּי

.אָמוֹר אָמַרְתִּי, תִּכְלֶה צָרָה

בָּחוֹן בָּחַנְתִּי, סִפְרִי טָמַנְתִּי

.הָעֵט צָפַנְתִּי, לֵאמֹר סוּרָה

אָמְנָם רָאִיתִי, לַשָּׁוְא צִפִּיתִי

.עֵת כִּי חָזִיתִי, דּוֹבֵר סָרָה

גַּם כִּי עָנִיתִי, יוֹם יוֹם אִוִּיתִי

.קַוֹּה קִוִּיתִי, מֵאֵל עֶזְרָה


Before I have grown old, before I have slept,

I have gathered a gathering for speaking song.

With Laban I have lived; therefore, I became acher.

I have said and said, “Let anguish cease.”

I discerned discerningly; I covered by book;

I concealed my pen, saying “Turn away!”

Indeed, I have seen; for nothing I waited;

Before, I have seen one who speaks and turns away.

Also, I testified; each and every day have I longed.

I have hoped hope—for help from God.


Morpurgo was no slave, but the composition of this poem hovers around a time in life when Morpurgo had lost significant agency upon marrying a husband who pressured her to quit her creative pastimes. Though her spirit had cracked, the backbone of hope in the Divine, which held her up in times of distress, still preserved her humanity.

The negative emotions stirred by acts of subjugation are almost biologically inevitable. What makes us holy in the face of hardships is our commitment to an unending empathy. Being oppressed ought not stop us, tempting as retreat may seem. Oppression reminds us, rather, that we should treat strangers in our midst with kindness, for our people has known what it was like to be maligned foreigners (as enjoined in Leviticus 19:33–34). Attempts to dishearten us should not stop us. Heartless attacks on our integrity should remind each of us that we truly are a people with a lot of heart.

We have a lot of heart to give.