Why did Yaakov stay at Sukkot for so long?​

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism הכנסת ספר תורה במערת המכפלה
הכנסת ספר תורה במערת המכפלה
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

"And Eisav (Esau) returned on that day on his path toward Seir. And Yaakov (Jacob) traveled to Sukkot and built for himself a house, and for his herds he built shelters; therefore did he call the name of the location 'Sukkot' (‘Shelters')." Bereshit 33:16-17

Rashi, invoking interpretations of the Sages (Megillah 17a, Bereshis Rabbah 78), explains that Yaakov our Father spent 18 months at Sukkot during the long trek back to his father Yitzchak (Isaac) who was living in Chevron (Hevron), and that these 18 months constituted part of the 22-year period for which Yaakov was subsequently penalized, for Yosef (Joseph) was separated from Yaakov for 22 years in correspondence with the 22 years that Yaakov was separated from Yitzchak, during which Yaakov did not personally honor his father. (V. Rashi on Bereshit 22:9.

Why did Yaakov tarry at Sukkot for 18 months? Although Yaakov's other endeavors during the 22-year period of separation from Yitzchak were obviously understandable, the time spent at Sukkot seems to have been totally voluntary and unnecessary. Even according to the interpretation presented by Targum Yonatan ben Uziel (ibid. 33:17), that Yaakov established a beit medrash (yeshiva) for Torah study at Sukkos, why could this not have been done after arriving home to Hevron, thereby avoiding further delay of Yaakov reuniting with his father Yitzchak?

Yaakov, who represents the Jew in Galut (the Exile), was the Av (Patriarch) whose life was particularly full of struggle, turbulence and suffering. Yaakov had survived several potentially lethal encounters with Eisav, he escaped unscathed from persecution and pursuit on the part of Lavan, and he most likely realized by now that his destiny would be one of immense difficulty and challenge.

Therefore, immediately upon safely parting ways from Eisav, Yaakov seized upon an opportunity for calm and stability, settling at Sukkos to conduct a "normal" life, as he perceived that new struggles and difficulties may very well confront him during his upcoming trek through Canaan. Yaakov hence decided to remain in Sukkos for a protracted period, to build a yeshiva or a home, to raise his herds under normal conditions, and to try to conduct a regular life there. Yaakov knew that Sukkos was the one chance to regain a sense of stability, and, to answer our question above, this is precisely why he tarried there.

What is the lesson for us?

Although certain periods throughout the year and certain events during one's life are incredibly impactful and help provide direction and energy to grow spiritually, the most important context for true spiritual and lasting growth is one of normalcy and stability, during which a person can invest effort and focus in a sustained manner. While staying up Shavuot night to attend shiurim (lectures) and learn Torah with exhilaration can be very potent, it does not compare in the long term with methodical, sustained and focused Torah learning throughout the year. This is but one example of a far broader message.

Yaakov knew that even though the many tribulations and miracles that he and his family would experience for decades to come would mold their character and contribute to the unique identity and mission of the Jewish People, the true spiritual cultivation of his household and progeny ultimately would depend on sowing seeds of growth and building upon this growth in a methodical and sustained fashion, rather than doing things on the run and experiencing lives of constant turmoil and salvation.

Although Yaakov could not control the larger scheme of his destiny, and it was his calling to undergo periods of suffering and redemption, so as to shape the nation’s character and identity, he realized that seizing upon moments of calm and stability were key to long-term and lasting spiritual cultivation. Yaakov understood well that sustained phases of “normalcy” were necessary for enduring and apex religious development. This is the message of Sukkot.

It is interesting that even though our tradition teaches that Shem and Ever maintained yeshivot, the Talmud (Megillah 17a) refers to Yaakov as having spent the first fourteen years away from home at the yeshiva of Ever - omitting reference to Shem. Why is this?

Ever bore children as the era of unprecedented rebellion against God and the Great Dispersion was about to commence, and he nonetheless established a yeshiva and raised righteous progeny. (Bereshit 10:25, Rashi ibid.) Ever represents methodical cultivation of Avodat Hashem, Divine Service, in the face of great adversity. Ever realized that the Torah would provide the necessary sustenance for this most difficult scenario, and he therefore immersed in Torah and created a Torah institution that would endure for many generations.

Yaakov in a sense continued and expanded upon the mission of Ever, as Yaakov likewise faced great adversity, yet he realized that Torah would provide nourishment and stability, despite the circumstances. The yeshiva of Ever, manifesting engagement in Torah in the context of immense challenge and conflict, is the lesson of Yaakov. This is why Yaakov specifically sought out the yeshiva of Ever, as it reflected his mission and his being.

May the age-old sorrows of our nation cease, and may we soon see the Jewish People emerge as Israel, Yisrael, meaning that our challenges have been overcome.