“Watch out for Laban, he’s more dangerous than Pharaoh!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Kee Tavo is an “ominous” parasha. It is one of two Torah portions that features the tochacha–-G-d’s threat of terrible punishment for the People of Israel for failing to heed His words.

Interestingly, the parasha starts with an entirely different theme: the confessional recited in the Temple by those who bring Bikkurim–the first ripened fruits of the field. In a moving and festive ceremony, Jewish farmers express their gratitude to G-d for His beneficence and for His guiding role throughout Jewish history.

As part of the ceremony, the farmer takes back his basket of first ripened fruits that he has given to the Kohen (priest) and makes a brief pronouncement. This compact outline of Jewish history underscores the fact that without G-d’s intervention there would be no land that is sacred to the Jewish people, let alone the crops from which the people of Israel now benefit.

As part of the declaration, the farmer recites the words: “Arami oved Avi” (Deut 26:5), which, according to Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible), means: “An Aramean tried to destroy my father.” Those who are familiar with the Passover Haggadah may recognize this phrase because it plays an important role in retelling the story of the slavery in Egypt.

Rashi asserts that “Aramean” refers to the clever “con artist” Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law, who tries to deceive Jacob at every turn. Were it not for G-d’s intervention, our forefather Jacob would have ended up penniless and possibly dead.

Our commentators tell us that the story of Laban is included in the Passover Haggadah in order to teach us that Laban, our relative, father of Rachel and Leah, and presumably our friend, is actually more dangerous than Pharaoh. After all, with Pharaoh–what you see is what you get–a virulent anti-Semite, who makes no bones about his public desire to destroy the Jewish people.

Laban, on the other hand, feigns love for Jacob and his family, but deep in his heart rages a seething desire to do away with them. Our Rabbis tell us that Laban puts us off guard–he appears to embrace and love Israel, his children and grandchildren; they are, after all, his flesh and blood! But the blood relationship serves as paltry protection from the likes of Laban!

It is universally known that Pharaoh hates the Jews and wants to destroy them, so Israel is on the alert. But few of us would suspect that Laban, our relative, harbors nefarious intentions.

Many of us are concerned, and justifiably so, about the recent proliferation of perfidious anti-Semitic attacks, not only in Israel, but the world over. Despite our surprise at the extent of worldwide anti-Semitism, Jews are always on the alert for their overt enemies. We can always improve our security and heighten our vigilance. The greater threat, however, is the threat that we don’t hear, see or smell–the threat that is taking an incredible toll on our people. The Laban of today is assimilation, that subtle but pernicious enemy, which is “killing” far more Jews through kindness than were ever killed by violence and murder.

One of the reasons that assimilation is so profoundly impacting on our children today is because our young people don’t appreciate what Judaism has to offer. Young Jews are defecting not out of disenchantment with Judaism. They are walking away due to ignorance! Which, of course, compounds the problem.

Several years ago, while on a lecture tour to Australia, I had an opportunity to spend several days on Oahu, Hawaii (these are the perks of doing mitzvot), a most enchanting island–not very conducive to religious growth or observance. I spent one afternoon visiting the Polynesian Village, a “must see” tourist stop. One particular show at the village left me spiritually agitated. The show highlighted Polynesian culture and featured a brilliant performance by a young Polynesian, a descendant of one of the native Hawaiian tribes, who attempted to explain his culture to the hordes of tourists. I could not imagine how this young man expected to hold the attention of the tourists for very long, given the fact that his culture did not appear to be very intellectually rich, and also because the performer was operating under a severe handicap–-he had to convey his message simultaneously in English and Japanese, since many in the audience were from Japan.

The young man proceeded to shimmy up a huge palm tree, remove a large coconut, and while still high up in the tree, slice the coconut open with a sharp blade and start a fire by rubbing the flax of the coconut skin together. The audience was enthralled, amused, and duly impressed. The performer then displayed and demonstrated the use of ancient Polynesian tribal war weapons, performed some native war dances, and emitted a series of native war cries.

I know that it is not politically correct to be judgmental about other people’s culture, but at the time I couldn’t help thinking to myself of an incident that occurred way back in 1835, when O’Connell, the powerful Irish parliamentarian, attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s Jewish ancestry. Disraeli replied without hesitation: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

We Jews have so much of which to be proud, but our young people are completely unaware of the enchanting treasures of our heritage. While other ancient tribes were harvesting coconuts, we Jews were teaching the world “Lo Tir’tzach,” Thou shalt not murder. While others were rubbing flax together to make fire, Jews were revolutionizing the world with the Torah’s teachings about caring for the poor, the infirm, the orphan, and the widow. While others were becoming more proficient at the art of war, our Torah was preaching 36 times to love the stranger.

We know what Pharaoh wants, so we can protect ourselves, but watch out for brother Laban, the wily Aramean, who is always out there waiting to defeat us. The only way to protect ourselves from Laban is to be knowledgeable enough to resist and respond to his indefatigable efforts to seduce us away from our special and glorious heritage. Only proper Jewish education can neutralize those efforts.

May you be blessed.