“Who is the Real Enemy?”

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, we read of Jacob’s flight from Beersheva, to escape his brother Esau’s wrath. Jacob runs, as per his mother’s instructions, to Charan, 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 tells Jacob specifically to harken to her voice, “v’kum brach l’cha el Lavan a’chi Charana”. “Arise and flee to my brother Laban to Charan.” Genesis 27:43. Rebecca doesn’t say go to my homeland, or to my family, but specifically instructs Jacob to go to Laban. Furthermore, when Jacob departs from his father Isaac, scripture tells us, Genesis 28:5, that Jacob does not just go to Paddan Aram, but specifically to Laban, son of B’thuel, 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 text, until this point, it seems that Laban played a rather subordinate role as confronter and deceiver. He deceives Jacob of his beloved Rachel, and then deceives him of his well-earned pay and the flocks, and finally confronts Jacob when he flees from Laban’s home after 20 plus years of devoted labor.

Despite the minor textual role, Jewish history portrays Laban as a significant character. In fact, ironically, in the Passover Hagadah, when the focus should be on Pharaoh and his attempts to destroy the Jewish people, Laban appears unexpectedly and steals the limelight. During the telling of the Passover story the well known hymn, “V’hi sheh’amdah” is read, underscoring G-d’s promise to protect our forefathers and us. The Hagadah text then introduces Laban with the famous statement, “Tsay ul’mad, ma bi’kesh Lavan Ha’arami la’asot l’Jacob a’vinu.” 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 tumbnail recount of Jewish history in this part of the Passover Hagadah? After introducing Laban, the Hagadah then makes clear why Laban? Says the Hagadah: While Pharaoh decreed only against the males, Laban decided to uproot all, “V’Lavan bi’kesh la’akor et hakol, Sheh’neh’emar: Arami Oved Avi,” for it is written (Deut 25:5): An Aramean sought to destroy my father and he went down to Egypt and dwelt there.

The commentaries offer a number of interesting explanations as to Laban’s role in the Hagadah. Some cite the Midrash that says 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 Yonaton says that Laban and Bilam were one and the same person, and that it was Laban, in the form of Bilam, 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 first born child of Yaaov, but because Laban switched Rachel and Leah, Joseph became the eleventh child of Jacob. Had he been the first born, there would not have been jealousy and enmity towards Joseph, despite being favored by his father. Joseph’s enslavement was a result of Laban’s trickery, and the consequent descent of Jacob and the twelve tribes to Egypt, was therefore entirely Laban’s fault.

The literal interpretation of the verse, “Arami oved Avi,” which is mentioned in the Haggadah, is that my father was a wondering 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 Hagadah, based on the Midrash, however interprets this verse differently. “Arami oved Avi” — “oved” doesn’t mean wandering, but destroying –“An Aramean tried to destroy my father.” The Torah in effect pronounces that Laban, who was an Aramean, is to be feared even more than Pharaoh. Afterall, we all know who Pharaoh is and what he wants to accomplish. He is our brazen enemy, who declares forthrightly that he wishes to destroy the Jews physically, by having the children killed by the midwives. When that fails, he has the Jewish male children thrown into the river, and finally the entire Jewish populace is enslaved with work so rigorous that they fall like flies. Pharaoh wears his hatred on his shirt 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 and embraces us, and welcomes us warmly as we enter Charan, “Are you not my flesh and blood?” exclaims Laban to Jacob. (Genesis 28:14) Laban provides a month of hospitality to Jacob. “Just because you are my relative, should you serve me for nothing?” “Tell me what are your wages?” asks Laban, seemingly out of full brotherly concern for Jacob.

However, Laban’s embrace is a false embrace, and his kiss is the “kiss of death.” Although Laban is our family, and appears to be our friend, his real intention is to destroy all the Jewish people, men, women and children. And because he feigns love, he is even more dangerous than Pharaoh, especially since it is so difficult to identify his subtle desire to destroy us.

But Laban never attacks us physically, so how does Laban intend to destroy us? It is the craftiness and subtlety of Laban that we must fear! When Jacob leaves Beersheva he has the famous dreams of the ladder, of angels going up and coming down. It is a 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) “Achen yesh Hashem ba’makom ha’zeh.” G-d is truly present in this place and I did not know it. “Ein zeh kiim bet elokim v’zeh shar ha’shamayim,” 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 assimilating influence of Laban, Jacob dreams again. 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. Under Laban’s influences, Jacob is no longer the spiritual man of G-d. He is the material man. His only concern now is making a killing on the stock market. That is why the angels of G-d 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 (Gen 31:43). But Jacob stands fast. He does not allow himself to be swayed by Laban’s melodramatic plea. The danger of Laban looms too large and Jacob must leave Charan and distance himself before it is too late. Thank G-d, Jacob has the fortitude to make this decision, and save all future generations of Jews. Thank you, for our lives, Father Jacob.

May you be blessed.