We read this Shabbat a text which also appears in the Passover Haggadah. This text includes the following three words: “Arami Oved Avi” (ארמי אובד אבי).There are two ways to understand these words. According to Rashi and the midrash in Sifre, it means that there was an Arami (a person from a place called Aram) who tried to destroy “my father” (our father Jacob). For Rashi, this text speaks about the wicked uncle Lavan who exploited Jacob’s industriousness and ingenuity in business, cheated him, exploited him, and tried to prevent him from returning to Israel.
Rabbi Ibn Ezra, a Spanish commentator, reads “Arami Oved Avi” in a different way. For Ibn Ezra, the Arami was Jacob himself who “got lost” (אובד), by living in exile for decades. At first glance, Rashi and Ibn Ezra have a very different take here. The former claims that we are talking about Lavan’s attempt to eradicate Jacob by oppressing and manipulating him. The former sees Jacob himself as a person who got lost in an alien and foreign environment.
However, a deeper look at these two commentaries shows that they are complementary, rather than contradictory. The message here is that there are two chief dangers for Jewish existence and continuity. One danger is posed by the Lavans of the world, who historically sought to prey on Jacob / Israel when we are vulnerable and in exile. This danger is about physical, political and economic vulnerability, and being susceptible to external dangers posed by peoples who wish us ill and harm.
The second danger is an internal danger of becoming spiritually lost in a decadent and materialistic climate in which the Jewish soul cannot satiate its eternal thirst for the Infinite and the Divine. Rashi’s commentary is about the threat of physical destruction; Ibn Ezra’s commentary is about the menace of spiritual perdition.
And so we see that Rashi and Ibn Ezra really complete each other, and send us through the millennia–old dialogue of Torah analysis, a clear and pervasive message about the two chief challenges facing a Jewish person anywhere, at any given time in history. We need to be vigilant vis a vis the external threats of our foes like Lavan who seek our physical destruction, and we also need to work hard to protect our Jewish soul, not just the Jewish body, and create for ourselves sacred times in which we can nurture our Divine inner core through Torah and mitzvoth, lest we G-d forbid lose our connection to G-d and Jewish peoplehood, and experience spiritual perdition.