The Midrash tells us that before Ya’akov came to Lavan’s home he was learning yoman va’layla, he was completely immersed in Torah and did not even sleep a wink for the 14 years he spent in Yeshivas Shem v’Eiver. Continues the Midrash, when he came to Lavan’s home what did he do? According to one view he recited all of sefer Tehillim, according to another view he recited the chapters of Shir haMa’alos.
Now, I understand that, depending on the situation, leaving the yeshiva and going to an in-law’s home or a parent’s home can involve a certain measure of batalah. You have to pretend to be what the rest of the world calls “normal” and try to talk about things other than R’ Akiva Eiger and Ketzos. Ya’akov was obviously preoccupied with not the most understanding father-in-law in Lavan (to say the least), and on top of that he had 11 kids and 4 wives to deal with. But to go from complete immersion in Torah to just sitting and saying Tehillim?! Not even daf yomi?
The Ostrovzer explains:
We encounter two different types of yetzer hara in life. The first is the yetzer hara of lust, greed, ta’avah, that pulls us in the direction of physical desire. This is the yetzer hara of Eisav. We know these things are wrong, but we sometimes fall prey to temptation anyway.
But there is yet another type of yetzer hara. This yetzer hara is not out to get us to do aveiros – this yetzer hara wants us to do mitzvos! The only catch is that it wants us to do what it calls mitzvos, not what we think are mitzvos. This is an intellectual yetzer hara, a yetzer hara that uses reason and logic to make a case that its agenda is the true good. This is the yetzer hara of Lavan. It’s not by accident that the name Lavan, white, suggests purity and cleanliness, because that’s exactly the image this yetzer cultivates. Lavan has an excuse, a justification for every trick he pulls, whether it be switching Ya’akov’s wives or the terms of his employment, so that by the end of the day you think Lavan is in the right and Ya’akov is in the wrong and you give him a big y’yasher koach for setting you straight.
The gemara (Chulin 91) offers two views as to how the angel who wrestled with Ya’akov in next week’s parsha appeared: like a pagan or like a talmid chacham. The Shem m’Shmuel there explains that these two images represent these two types of yetzer hara – the first represents temptation, the second represents intellectual corruption. Ya'akov had to wrestle with both.
Our Midrash teaches how to prepare for and deal with these two challenges. The way to combat the yetzer hara of Eisav, of temptation, is to immerse oneself in Torah, as Chazal tell us, “moshcheyhu l’beis hamedrash,” drag that yetzer hara into the beis medrash, meaning either channel one’s energies into learning, or devote oneself to more intellectual pursuits instead of concentrating on desire. This is what Ya’akov Avinu did for 14 years while he was hiding in the Yeshiva of Shem v’Eiver.
However, when it comes to dealing with the yetzer hara of Lavan, the more you sit in the beis medrash and learn, the more ammunition this yetzer hara has to work with – it will twist and corrupt every sugya and every sevara so that it supports its agenda instead of truth. How can you beat this opponent? The answer is say Tehillim – daven, ask Hashem for help, don’t rely on your own judgment, always reinforce the idea of l’shem shamayim, just as Ya’akov Avinu did in his long sojourn in Lavan’s home.