Rashi interprets the phrase, Im Lavan garti, “With Lavan, I lived,” as a profound message to Eisav. The word garti has the same letters (hence, the same gematria, numerical value) as taryag, 613 (mitzvos). Yaakov intimated to Eisav, “I do not fear your influence on me. I lived for years with the wicked Lavan; yet, I did not learn from his evil ways. I still was able to observe all taryag mitzvos. Yaakov seems to be making two statements: A) I observed the entire Torah, B) I did not learn from Lavan’s evil ways. Is this not obvious? If one observes the entire Torah, clearly he is not a student of Lavan. The disciples of Lavan do not observe the Torah, and those who adhere to the Torah are not influenced by Lavan!
Horav Zaidel Epstein, zl, derives from here that it is possible for one to be fully Torah observant, yet remain a talmid, student, of Lavan. The two are not necessarily inconsistent with one another. Obviously, this must be explained, since a Torah observant Jew cannot possibly be an adherent of Lavan’s values and principles – or can he? The Mashgiach explains this based upon a well-known principle expounded by Ramban in his commentary to Parashas Kedoshim (Vayikra 19:2), in which he explains the concept of Kedoshim tiheyu, “You shall be holy.” What is the meaning of holiness? How is our concept of holiness different from that understood by general world society? Ramban contends that holiness is not limited to the observance of any specific category of mitzvos or to the fulfillment of any particular set of activities or deeds; rather, it is an exhortation that one’s approach to life and living be governed by moderation, especially in those areas of human endeavor which are permissible. The Ramban’s phrase assailing such behavior has been immortalized: Naval birshus haTorah; “A degenerate with the permission of the Torah.” Such a person executes the technical demands of a mitzvah, including the minutae, yet surrenders himself to self-indulgence, gluttony, and licentious behavior. Although not committing a specific prohibition, his behavior is not Torah-oriented. A Jew must go beyond his practical obedience; he must be kadeish atzmecha b’mutar lach, “Sanctify himself/yourself in what is permissible,” thus achieving the level of kedushah, holiness.
Lavan lived for olam hazeh, this world, with its materialistic and physical pleasures. He clung to them passionately. Yaakov Avinu could have been influenced by his behavior, to the extent that he could “placate” total mitzvah performance while achieving those worldly pleasures that were not distinctly incongruous with Torah dictate. We derive a powerful lesson to incorporate into our lives: One should not assume that by studying Torah and observing mitzvos — even studying diligently and observing every aspect of the mitzvos – he is home free. He must accompany his spiritual devotion with an abrogation of olam hazeh, dedicating himself to a life in which physical pleasure — unless dedicated for a lofty, spiritual purpose — is not his life’s focus, nor is materialism his guiding light. Torah and mitzvos mean spirituality. Materialism and physicality are present to help, not to lead.