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Vayeitzei 5780-2019

“Who is the Real Enemy?
(Updated and revised from Vayeitzei 5760-1999)

 

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, we read of Jacob’s flight from Beersheba, to escape his brother Esau’s wrath. Jacob runs, as per his mother’s instructions, to Haran, to be with his mother’s brother Laban, until Esau’s anger against him subsides and he will be able to return to Canaan.

It is intriguing that Rebecca specifically tells Jacob (Genesis 27:43) to harken to her voice, וְקוּם בְּרַח לְךָ אֶל לָבָן אָחִי, חָרָנָה , “Arise and flee to my brother Laban to Haran.” Rebecca doesn’t say, “Go to my homeland,” or “Go to my family,” but specifically instructs Jacob to “Go to Laban.” Furthermore, when Jacob departs from his father Isaac, scripture states (Genesis 28:5), that Jacob does not just go to Paddan Aram, but specifically to Laban, son of Bethuel, the brother of Rebecca, mother of Jacob and Esau.

Obviously, Laban, who has been in the wings until now, is moving to center stage in the saga of Jacob, and begins to play, what will turn out to be, a featured role in the destiny of the Jewish people. From the biblical text, until this point, it seems that Laban played an important, but subordinate, role as confronter and deceiver. He deceives Jacob at his marriage to his beloved Rachel, and then deceives Jacob of his well-earned compensation and flocks, and finally has the audacity to confront Jacob when he flees from Laban’s home, after 20 plus years of devoted labor.

Despite the limited textual role, Jewish history portrays Laban as a singularly significant character. In fact, ironically, in the Passover Haggadah, when the focus should be on Pharaoh and his attempts to destroy the Jewish people, Laban appears, unexpectedly, on the scene to steal the limelight.

During the telling of the Passover story the well-known hymn, וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה“V’hee sheh’amdah” is read, underscoring G-d’s promise to protect our forefathers and us. The Haggadah text then introduces Laban with the famous statement, צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּשׁ לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ , Go out and learn what Laban, the Aramean, attempted to do to our father Jacob. What does Laban have to do with the enslavement in Egypt and the Exodus? What business does Laban have with the celebration of Passover, and the recounting of Jewish history in this part of the Passover Haggadah?

However, soon after introducing Laban, the Haggadah makes it clear why there is an emphasis on Laban. Says the Haggadah: While Pharaoh decreed only against the males, ְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקוֹר אֶת הַכֹּל, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי , Laban decided to uproot all [of Israel], for it is written, Deuteronomy 25:5: “An Aramean sought to destroy my father and he went down to Egypt and dwelt there.”

The commentaries offer a number of fascinating explanations concerning Laban’s role in the Haggadah. The Targum Yerushalmi, 24:33 cites the Midrash that Laban attempted to poison Eliezer, Abraham’s servant. Had he succeeded in doing so, then the wedding of Rebecca and Isaac would never have taken place, and there would have been no Jewish people.

The Targum Yonatan (Numbers 22:5) says that Laban and Balaam were one and the same person, and that it was Laban, in the form of Balaam, who advised Pharaoh to have the Jewish male children thrown into the river and drowned.

The Alshich suggests that Joseph was supposed to be the firstborn child of Jacob, but because Laban switched Rachel and Leah, Joseph became the eleventh child of Jacob. Had he been the firstborn, there would have been no jealousy or enmity toward Joseph, despite being favored by his father. Since Joseph’s enslavement was a result of Laban’s trickery, the consequent descent of Jacob and the twelve tribes to Egypt, was entirely Laban’s fault.

The literal interpretation of the verse, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי –“Arami oved avi,” which is mentioned in the Passover Haggadah, is that my father was a wandering Aramean. “Aramean” is usually interpreted as referring to Jacob or perhaps Abraham, whose family stemmed from Aram, and eventually relocated to Canaan. In effect, the prototype of the wandering Jew. The Haggadah, based on the Midrash, however interprets this verse differently. “Arami oved avi“–אֹבֵד –“oved” does not mean wandering, but destroying –“An Aramean tried to destroy my father.” The Torah boldly pronounces that it is Laban, the Aramean, who is to be feared even more than Pharaoh. After all, we all know who Pharaoh is and what he wants to accomplish. He is our brazen enemy, who publicly declares that he wishes to destroy the Jews physically, and the one who openly ordered the midwives to kill Jewish children. When that fails, Pharaoh has the Jewish male children thrown into the river, and finally enslaves all the Jews with work so rigorous that they fall like flies. Pharaoh wears his hatred on his sleeve and declares publicly that the Jews are a fifth column who aspire to destroy Egypt. With such public pronouncements, we know that we have to beware of Pharaoh.

But, Laban, Laban is our brother. Laban kisses, hugs, embraces us, and welcomes us warmly (Genesis 29:13-14) as we enter Haran. “Are you not my flesh and blood?” exclaims Laban to Jacob. Laban provides a month of hospitality to Jacob and then, seemingly out of full brotherly concern for Jacob, Laban asks, “Just because you are my relative, should you serve me for nothing? Tell me what are your wages?”

Laban’s embrace, however, is a false embrace, and his kiss is the “poison of death.” Although Laban is our family, our flesh-and-blood, and appears to be our friend, his real intention is to destroy all the Jewish men, women and children. Moreover, because he feigns love and throw us off guard, he is far more dangerous than Pharaoh, especially since it is so difficult to recognize his subtle desire to destroy us. The enemy within is often the more dangerous and formidable foe.

Ironically, Laban never attacks us frontally or physically. How then does Laban intend to destroy us? It is the craftiness and subtlety of Laban that we must fear!

When Jacob leaves Beersheba (Genesis 28:12) he dreams the well-known dream of the ladder, of angels going up and coming down. It is a thoroughly spiritual dream. It’s a dream of a Yeshiva Bachur, the dream of a Jew committed to his Judaism. For he says, Genesis 28:17: אָכֵן, יֵשׁ השׁם בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה , G-d is truly present in this place and I did not know it, אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם בֵּית אֱ־לֹקִים, וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם , This is nothing but the house of G-d, and this is the gateway to Heaven. After this inspiring vision, Jacob swears that he will always be faithful to G-d, and will come back to worship at that holy place.

But, after 22 years under the corrupting and assimilating influence of Laban, Jacob’s dreams change dramatically. In Genesis 31:10, Jacob tells his wives that he had a dream, a dream of he-goats mounting the flocks, which were striped, speckled and checked. Due to Laban’s influence, Jacob is no longer the spiritual man of G-d. He has become a “Material Man.” His only concern now is to make a killing in the stock market. That is why the angels of G-d must say to him, “Arise, leave this land, and return to your native land!” Get out from under the influence of Laban. Don’t you realize that the blandishments of Laban and his household have subtly turned you away from G-d and away from your Judaism?

Jacob must make a choice, a critical choice that will affect all of Jewish history. Laban plays his final card, a heart-wrenching plea that Jacob not separate him from his children: “Your children are my children!” cries Laban (Genesis 31:43). But Jacob stands fast. Jacob (with help from his wives) does not allow himself to be swayed by Laban’s melodramatic plea. The danger of Laban looms too large, and Jacob and his family must leave Haran and distance himself before it is too late.

Thank G-d, Jacob has the fortitude to make this bold decision, and save all future generations of Jews. Thank you, for our lives, Father Jacob.

May you be blessed.