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Parashat Vayeitze

12/01/2014 10:27:03 PM


Was Laban Really A Wicked Person?

By Charles Shenitz and Shamai Leibowitz

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitze, one of the main characters is Laban, or Lavan, Rebecca's brother and Yaakov's uncle, with whom Yaakov has a tumultuous relationship. 

 We referenced Lavan in this column several few weeks ago in our commentary on the Torah portion of Ki Tavo. In that portion, the Torah prescribes that a person bringing bikurim (first fruit offerings) to the Temple in Jerusalem must make a declaration. This declaration opens with the Hebrew statement, “arami oved avi” and we saw there are at least two completely different interpretations – and therefore translations - of those three words: 

One translation is, “my father was a wandering Aramean” and “my father”  can refer to either Yaakov or Avraham. The other translation, perhaps shocking, is: “An Aramean sought to destroy my father”. The Aramean - in this translation - is a reference to Lavan. Let us investigate this highly unflattering interpretation now.

 The critical and denigrating identification of Lavan leads to the statement in the Haggadah where it is stated that Lavan (the Aramean) “sought to uproot all”, to destroy the forming Jewish people (that is, the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel). From where does this harsh treatment of Lavan come?  

To answer this question, we will investigate some of Lavan’s attributes found in this week’s portion. In the interest of balance, fairness and full intellectual inspection of the texts, we will also try to show where some positive attributes of Lavan can be found!

In the first place, most people will find fault with Lavan squeezing many years of labor out of Yaakov to enable him to obtain Rachel as his wife. Most people are familiar with that story. Lavan "switched brides" to marry off his older daughter Leah first, forcing Yaakov to work 7 years for Rachel and then another 7 years (after the surreptitious "bride exchange") before finally marrying Rachel, and then working an additional 6 years after that. It would appear that mainly for this reason, Rashi comments (in Ki Tavo) that the Hebrew term for Aramean, “arami,” can be rearranged to spell “ramai”  or cheater!

The first time we are introduced to Lavan is when Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, travels to Aram Naharayim and meets Lavan and his father Bethuel. In that story, following Eliezer’s request for permission to take Rebecca back with him, the text quotes their reply as follows:

Then Lavan and Bethuel answered: ‘The matter was decreed by the L-rd; we cannot speak to you bad or good.’ (Genesis 24:50)

Rashi notes that Lavan was a wicked person and so rushed in to answer before his father. However, there may be a more favorable interpretation. Following this verse, we no longer here about Bethuel.  Only Lavan continues to converse with Eliezer until he finally gives Rebecca his blessing and sends her off. This signals that Lavan, as the brother, had more duties and powers in regard to his sister than his father, and can easily explain why his name came first in the aforementioned verse.

When Yaakov finally departed from Lavan with all of Yaakov’s children, cattle and other possessions, the scene where Lavan and Yaakov face off speaks poorly for Lavan’s character. In that scene, Lavan himself said clearly,

“It lies within the power of my hand to do evil to you” (Genesis 31:29).

 Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik points out that Lavan used the plural form in Hebrew for “you.” Rav Soloveitchik contends that Lavan should have used the singular form, since he was talking to Jacob only (according to context, anyway). In this manner, says the Rav, he was threatening to kill even his own daughters and the other children and grandchildren. Not even Pharaoh did this as Pharaoh tried to kill the Hebrew male children but not his own son. Says Rabbi Soloveitchik: "In comparison, Pharaoh was sane... He wanted to keep the Jews downtrodden but he did not try to wipe them out nor did he wish to harm his own family.”

In another comment, Rabbi Soloveitchik notes the verse in Genesis 31:2, where the Torah states, “Jacob also saw that Laban’s manner toward him was not as it had been in the past.” In other words, Yaakov has noticed that his father-in-law, Lavan, is no longer pleased with him. From there follows the flight with the whole family and possessions. Furthermore, Rabbi Soloveitchik enters a deeper discussion about the covenant that Lavan entered into with Yaakov. Lavan invoked the name of his ancestors, Abraham and Nahor, and with regards to the latter, Rabbi Soloveitchik interprets this as seeking to perpetuate idolatry and thus bring an end to the incipient holiness and uniqueness of the great ancestors of the Jewish people.

 However, we must remember the main point of the story which is the reconciliation between Lavan and Yaakov. Our parasha concludes by telling us that Lavan heeded G-d's warning, and never did any harm to Yaakov. Furthermore, we witness a detailed scene of peace-making between Lavan and Yaakov, in which the men collect stones and build a pillar. The Torah even tells us both how Yaakov called the pillar ("gal-ed") and how Lavan named it ("yegar sahaduta"), demonstrating that both sides took this treaty very seriously. The story ends with Yaakov and Lavan breaking bread together while making a covenant (brit) of peace. 

The modern exegete Yehudah Nachshoni, in his “Studies in the Weekly Parashah,” compiled several lesser-known comments on the character of Lavan. In a section titled, “The Trickery of Lavan,” he notes that commentators view the feast that Lavan threw in honor of the upcoming marriage as a “smokescreen” to hide the switcheroo between Rachel and Leah. It was just to cause confusion and aid the trickery. 

 However, when Lavan explains his actions with the comment: 

"It is not the practice in our place to marry the younger before the older”

this  can be interpreted as a subtle rebuke of Yaakov's deceitful action of stealing the blessings from his brother Esav. 

 As the Midrash explains, Lavan is simply applying the concept of "midah k'neged midah," the idea that "what goes around, comes around" and telling Yaakov:  

 I have heard stories of younger siblings rushing ahead of older ones as you yourself did, but we don’t do that here.

 Thus, Jacob has just learned why it was wrong for him to deceive his father and trick his brother Esav. Rather than moralize, the Torah lets Jacob discover that people who give themselves permission to lie and cheat find themselves in a world where no one can be trusted. 

 Finally, we must note that we learn an important halakha concerning women's rights from  Lavan. A few chapters back, when Eliezer asks Lavan and Bethuel permission to take Rebecca back to Canaan to marry Isaac, Lavan and Bethuel don't rush to send her away, but rather ask Rebecca for her own opinion:  

 They said: Let us call the girl and ask for her reply. 

 (Genesis 24:57).

 This is not only a progressive stance relative the prevailing custom in those times, but an actual halakha, enshrined in our tradition. As Rashi on this verse states: From this we learn that a person [in position of authority] should never marry off a woman against her will! 

Shabbat Shalom.  

Wed, August 10 2022 13 Av 5782