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Vayetze 2010

This week’s Sedra contains a single narrative, comprising a text of 148 verses without a single break in the way in which it is written in the Sefer Torah. There is a wealth of incident, but what I would like to focus on today is the nature of the various deceptions described in the Sedra. And indeed the seventh word of the Sedra introduces this theme, by using the strange word “vayifga” to describe Jacob’s encounter with the place where he would have his famous dream. “Vayifga” is translated as “encountered”. The rabbis say that the place came to meet Jacob; he did not consciously make his way there, but the route miraculously contracted for him, so that he was sure to arrive at the right place to dream his vision of the ladder to heaven. 

Jacob’s marriage 

Most of the deception in this Sedra centres around Jacob’s uncle Laban. The word “lavan” means white, and the rabbis suggest that Laban took great pains to display a white, ie pure exterior, whilst inside his heart was black with treachery. In other words, he was a hypocrite, rather than an outright thief. His dissembling was apparent when we first met him in Chayei Sarah rushing out to meet Eliezer who he thought was laden with riches; as soon as he found this was not the case his manner became brusque and impolite. Similarly, when first he meets Jacob, he is clearly disappointed that Jacob has nothing to offer him. He remarks, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh” (29:14); the meaning is plain, “You are a relative, so I have to show you hospitality.” But Rashi says that even in the first month Jacob was expected to work for Laban without any reward. At the end of the month, Laban makes it clear that he expects Jacob to continue working for him, but invites him to name his wages. When Jacob asks to serve seven years in order to marry Rachel, all that Laban says is, “It is better for me to give her to you than to give her to another man.” According to Sforno, Jacob’s request was perfectly reasonable: within those seven years Leah could well be married.

When the seven years were over, Laban made a feast. The Torah does not describe this as a wedding feast. Indeed, some commentators suggest that the sole purpose of this feast was to involve all the local people in ensuring that the local custom was observed and that the older daughter was married first. Not only was Jacob deceived; the purpose of the feast was not made clear to the local people, but Laban could still claim that it was they who prevented him from diverging from the local custom by marrying the younger daughter before the elder. After Jacob has married Leah and finds he has been deceived, Laban put the blame on the local people. In telling Jacob to complete the week of celebrations with Leah and “we will give this one as well”, Laban implies that now the local people will accept Jacob’s marriage to Rachel. Malbim suggests that Laban justifies his conduct in the following way: “I gave you Leah first only so that I could give you Rachel. You don’t know the customs of the place. By us, one who asks to marry the younger sister implies that he wants the older as well. Thus everything is in order, in accordance with my promise and the customs of the place.” Laban, the trickster, the hypocrite, wants to appear a man of justice. He will not admit that he duped Jacob; on the contrary, whatever he did to deceive Jacob was done only to fulfil his promise.

We move on through the birth of Jacob’s first eleven sons and one daughter. We will pass over the strange episode of the mandrakes which Reuben found in the field, with their purported magical powers. But we might just pause and note that when Jacob has finished serving his seven further years of unremunerated work for Rachel, there is an interesting exchange. Jacob plans to leave Laban, but Laban realises he now has to offer Jacob some kind of wage. Given the blessing which Jacob has brought to the household, Laban knows that he would have to pay Jacob a decent wage in order to retain his services, and the divine blessing that accompanies these. Laban therefore affects a false piety by saying, “I have a presentiment that G-d has blessed me for your sake” (30:27).Thus, he implies, I would not wish to see such a pious man leave me. Laban no doubt hoped that this emphasis on the divine blessing and Jacob’s piety would do the trick. But Jacob reminded him of how far he had multiplied Laban’s wealth and asked how he was supposed to provide for his own family. Laban asks Jacob, “What shall I give you?” And Jacob said “You shall give me nothing.” In other words, whatever he may earn is not a gift from Laban, it is his entitlement, and will reflect whatever blessing G-d may choose to bestow on him. The tenor of Jacob’s reply is to emphasise that it is not because of his supposed piety that the divine blessing has multiplied Laban’s wealth, but through his hard labour and efficiency.

I do not propose to go into the business with the sheep, where Jacob devised a cunning means of securing ownership of a large flock of animals. Suffice it to say that Laban thought he was agreeing to a modest arrangement so that, after he had himself taken all the existing speckled and streaked animals, the chances of Jacob acquiring many newly-born sheep with spots and streaks were minimal. But Jacob also knew that his wages had to take the form of something that became his at the moment of birth, because once it became Laban’s property it would be virtually impossible to retrieve it. For six years Jacob looked after Laban’s sheep, and as he later commented, throughout that period he never took a single animal for himself. If a sheep was killed by a wild animal, Jacob replaced it. In the day the drought consumed him, and at night the frost. If G-d had not helped him, Jacob would have had nothing material to show for his twenty years’ stay with Laban.

Rachel and the Teraphim  

So we come to Jacob’s flight from Laban. This is marked by a double theft. The Torah states, “And Rachel stole the teraphim that were her father’s. And Jacob stole the heart of Laban the Aramean because he did not tell him that he was fleeing.” We can deal fairly briefly with Rachel’s theft: the Teraphim were small idols used for divination. Rashi suggests that Rachel stole them to keep her father from idolatry, but Nachmanides argues that teraphim were not worshipped, because in that case King David would never have possessed them, whereas we know that his wife Michal put teraphim in his bed so that David’s pursuers would think he had not fled.   Rachel was in fact punished for taking the teraphim. When Laban came looking for them and searched all of Jacob’s possessions Jacob, who was convinced none of his family could have stolen them, said, “With whoever you find your gods, that person will not live” (31:32). Although Laban failed to discover them, as Rachel had hidden them in her saddle and was unable to get down from her camel, Jacob’s statement was fulfilled in Rachel’s premature death.

Stealing Laban’s heart  

But let us turn to the more serious theft. “Genaivat lev” means to win the good favour of another person without deserving it, for example by false friendliness or favours. It is a form of theft and deceit by wrongfully acquiring a good opinion to which one is not entitled. The Torah makes it clear that Jacob deceived Laban by not telling him, or indicating by so much as a look or an action, that he was going to flee. This statement puzzles the commentators, as it implies that Jacob should have told Laban that he was planning to flee. If he had, it is beyond doubt that Laban would have turned him out, alone without his family, and stripped of all his possessions. And if he didn’t tell Laban, how does that amount to stealing his heart? Sforno reminds us that Jacob well knew how to deal with Laban cunningly. From last week’s Sedra we know the extent of Jacob’s ability to deceive his father and his brother. Now Jacob acted as if he did not realise that Laban had turned against him and as if he had not heard the words of Laban’s sons, “It is from that of our father that he has got all this wealth” (31:1). Jacob pretended not to have sensed the hostility in the air and in no way showed that he planned to leave. It was not that Jacob was unethical or ungrateful, but he feared that Laban would steal all his possessions if he suspected that Jacob planned to leave. When six years earlier Jacob had raised the question of leaving, he has asked Laban’s permission. This time there was no such conversation, and in this sense too Jacob lulled Laban into a false sense of security.

There are some commentators who accept that Jacob acted properly. Jacob’s departure follows immediately after G-d has told him “Return unto the land of your fathers and to your family, and I will be with you” (31:3). Even though the divine command was clear enough, Jacob still needed to do whatever he could to save himself from Laban by natural means. Even when G-d offers assurance, he still wants the person to help himself by natural means.

But the Chatam Sofer took a very different view. He said: 

“It is surprising that our old father fled, for after Hashem had told him, ‘Go, leave this land’, he should have trusted in Hashem and should have left openly, and not as one who flees after committing a theft or trickery. And it may have been because of this that Dinah his daughter was stolen from him in the same fashion.”

When Laban catches up with Jacob he is full of righteous indignation. But his language is significant. He begins by using again the phrase of genaivat halev in his opening words, “What have you done that you have stolen my heart?” (31:26). Laban says that he wanted to give Jacob a great send-off with music and songs and to kiss his children and grandchildren. But he had, after all, come with his companions, and clearly intended to harm Jacob. Indeed, he says, “It is in the power of my hand to do you harm”. The word “you” is plural: Laban wanted to do evil not just to Jacob, but to the whole family. He refrained only because G-d had appeared to him in a dream warning him not to speak either good or bad to Jacob. One implication is that Laban had the right to punish Jacob severely for fleeing, but G-d had intervened to cause Laban to go beyond the strict letter of the law and show leniency. A different interpretation is that Laban could claim that he had had the opportunity to treat Jacob with evil any time during the past twenty years, because it was only last night that G-d had told him not to. So if he had not acted evilly in the past, when he had the opportunity, it proved his intentions must be good.  

The question arises as to why G-d had told Laban not to speak either good or bad to Jacob. Why was Laban forbidden to speak good to him? Because not everything that seemed good to Laban was actually good. Ideas of good and bad appear different to an evil person or a deceiver. And if Laban had done what seemed good in his own eyes, Jacob would have been indebted to him for that good. A couple of the commentators suggest that Laban was surprised by G-d’s words in support of Jacob. He had always thought of Jacob as a man like himself. Jacob had known how to hide his true feelings from Laban. Laban was full of lies and tricks and thought Jacob was the same. Now that Laban had learned that G-d was there to defend Jacob, he thought that Jacob had no need to flee like a thief in the night. If Jacob had revealed his righteousness earlier, Laban might well have shown more respect for Jacob and indeed  sent him away with songs and music.

When Laban voiced these hypocritical thoughts, Jacob became angry. Jacob could not trust the honeyed words of his deceiver. As long as Jacob lived with Laban and Laban was not happy with him, Jacob knew that he himself must be following the proper path. Now that Laban feigned sweetness and charm, Jacob became terrified because he feared he must have sinned. Hence his words to Laban, “What is my transgression? What is my sin, for you have pursued me?” (31:36). In other words, I must have sinned, because if you pursued me, and love me, it can only be because I have done something which you liked and which must therefore have been a sin.

The commentary known as the Akeidah lists six complaints that Jacob made against his father-in-law;

  1. You have checked all my belongings and didn’t find anything of yours; how could you have accused me of theft?
  2. I worked for you for twenty years and I did not make you lose a penny; any losses I bore myself.
  3. I never took anything of yours and derived benefit from it.
  4. I was never negligent in my work.
  5. My work was very difficult.
  6. I owe you nothing because I served you 14 years for your daughters and 6 years for your sheep.

To all these perfectly valid complaints, Laban gave a short cynical reply, “The daughters are my daughters and the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine”. Here is the true spirit of Laban. Never mind whether you worked to acquire them: you got them from me, and they will always remain mine. Laban is effectively saying, “When you claim that you were afraid that I would steal my daughters from you, that is  irrelevant because they are mine anyway. Similarly your children belong to their mothers and are also mine. And as for the sheep, you got them by fraud. Don’t tell me that it was because of you that I did so well; all the cattle and flocks are mine. And as for searching your possessions, I was searching my own things which you had stolen, because everything is mine and you own nothing.”   The Chatetz Chaim says that Laban’s complaints have been at the heart of anti-Semitic ideology throughout the ages:               “That is the way of the nation sin the land of our exile. We work with the sweat of our brow and acquire every penny with blood; and not only that, but the nations become wealthy by the fruit of our labour. We are careful not to touch what belongs to them in the slightest, “from a string to a shoelace”, and yet they complain, “Whatever you see is mine”. All is theirs. Both we ourselves and all our work. In their eyes, they are the masters and we are their slaves, and whatever a slave acquires belongs to his master.”

It is significant that this final episode with Laban occurs after G-d tells Jacob to return to the land of his fathers. G-d wanted to prove to Jacob how important that commandment was and how we do not belong in a hostile land. If Jacob had not realised earlier how essential this was, the cynical remarks of Laban finally convinced him. And so it was that as soon as Jacob entered the Holy Land, angels of G-d once more accompanied him.

13th November 2010    Neville Nagler

More documents on this Parshah: