“Jacob Separates from Laban”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, recounts the trials and experiences of Jacob during the twenty years that he sojourned in Haran with his ruthless father-in-law, Laban.

Jacob, of course, had to flee from his family’s home in Canaan after his brother, Esau, threatened to kill him. Jacob arrived in Haran, forlorn and penniless and, on multiple occasions, is deceived by his father-in-law, Laban. Finally, when he has had his fill, Jacob, with the consent of his wives Rachel and Leah, decides to stealthfully leave Laban. When Laban learns of Jacob and his family’s flight, Laban and his sons pursue them for seven days, and catch them in Mount Giliad. In a dream, the Al-mighty warns Laban, the Aramite, not to harm Jacob. The two adversaries eventually enter into a treaty, promising not to harm one another. They raise up a stone monument, confirming the treaty.

In Genesis 32:1, the Torah states, “Va’yash’kaym Lavan ba’boh’ker, vye’nah’shayk l’vah’nahv v’liv’noh’tahv, vye’vah’rech eht’hem, va’yay’lech va’yah’shahv Lavan lim’koh’moh,” And Laban awoke early in the morning, he kissed his sons and daughters and blessed them, and Laban went and returned to his place.

The parasha concludes with Jacob going on his way, where he encounters the angels of G-d. The Bible reports, Genesis 32:3, “Va’yoh’mehr Yaakov ka’ah’sher rah’ahm: ‘Mah’chah’nay Eh’lo’kim zeh, va’yik’rah shaym ha’mah’kohm ha’hoo Mah’chah’nah’yim,” Jacob said, when he saw them [the angels], “This is a G-dly camp,” so he named that place Mahanaim.

The rabbis in the Midrash elaborate extensively on Jacob’s departure from Laban. Commenting on the blessing that Laban gave his sons and daughters (actually to his grandsons and granddaughters), the rabbis refer to the Talmudic statement (Megillah 15a) that even the blessing of a person of low stature is to be regarded seriously. The Sforno notes that this comes to teach how effective a blessing can be when it is conferred with sincerity. Even Laban, a well-known scoundrel, can offer a sincere blessing. After all, every human being is endowed with Tzelem Eh’lokim, the image of G-d, and has the potential to offer a blessing with selfless commitment. Even Laban, the scoundrel, had that ability.

While it is true that at the moment that Laban offered his blessing he had reached a level of great sincerity, Laban still remains Laban. Commenting on the Biblical verse (Genesis 32:1), “And Laban went and returned to his place,” the rabbis maintain that this implies that Laban returned to his wickedness and to his decadent lifestyle. Whereas, the verse in Genesis 32:2, stating that Jacob went on his way, indicates that Jacob remained ethical, and was not influenced negatively by the twenty years that he had resided with the rogue, Laban. The rabbis attribute Jacob’s ability to remain faithful, to the 14 years he had spent studying Torah in the academy of Eber.

The Midrash continues to elaborate on what Laban did after he returned to his place and his lifestyle.

Despite the seemingly peaceful separation from Jacob and his children, Laban returned home only to send his son, along with a delegation of his family, to Esau. Citing the Midrash, some of the commentators maintain that the Biblical phrase reporting that Laban returned to his “place,” means that Laban returned to his former state of impoverishment in which Laban had been before Jacob arrived and amassed all the riches for Laban. Apparently robbers entered Laban’s house and impoverished him.

Laban, therefore, ordered the emissaries to incite Esau, by telling Esau how unethical Jacob was. They informed Esau that Jacob, who had arrived penniless to Laban’s homestead, had taken everything that Laban owned, becoming wealthy at Laban’s expense. After all, Laban had not only befriended Jacob and given him his two daughters to marry, he had even arranged for Jacob to prosper while he resided in Laban’s home. Nevertheless, while Laban went to shear his sheep, Jacob fled secretly, and even stole Laban’s T’raphim. (Vayeitzei 5766-2005). Furthermore, Laban’s emissaries informed Esau that Jacob was approaching with great wealth to the mountain of the Brook of Jabbok, and suggested that Esau could easily intercept Jacob there and do with him as he pleases.

As a result of this information, Esau grew incensed, and his old hatred for Jacob was rekindled. Esau soon set out with an armed camp to finish off his deceiving brother.

Laban’s messengers also went to Canaan, to inform Rebecca that Esau was rapidly advancing with an armed camp of four hundred men to attack Jacob, to slay him and to take all his possessions.

The Midrash then states that Rebecca herself sent seventy-two men to meet Jacob, to warn him of Esau’s advance, and instruct Jacob to negotiate carefully and gently with Esau. Rebecca advised Jacob to humble himself before Esau, “Don’t speak rashly to him, and give him presents from what G-d has blessed you with. Conceal nothing of your personal affairs from him, perhaps he will be appeased, and you will be spared. It is your duty to consider his dignity, for he is your elder brother.”

Jacob wept when he heard his mother’s message, and proceeded to carefully follow her directive.

When the encounter between the brothers finally takes place, Jacob successfully placates Esau by humbling himself and showering Esau with many valuable gifts. However, soon after, a wrestling match takes place in which Jacob is forever changed.

The lesson of the separation between Jacob and Esau is rather complex. Surprisingly, we learn that the duplicitous Laban does have a human heart in his breast, that can, at times, give sincere blessings. Nevertheless, Laban eventually returns to his roguish ways, and, at least according to the Midrash, tries to destroy Jacob and his family, including Laban’s own biological children and grandchildren.

Jacob also goes on his way, first encountering angels in Mahanaim who prepare him for his confrontation with Esau. He successfully appeases Esau, but still must wrestle with his own inner persona.

Despite 14 years spent in study at the Yeshiva of Eber, Jacob has within him the roguish qualities of the people of Haran, and a proclivity for deception. It is only after Jacob wrestles with the angel of Esau, and has his name changes to “Israel,” that he realizes that he can no longer deceive evil, but must confront it firmly and forcefully, wrestling directly with evil to defeat it.

The wrestling and struggling becomes an enduring component of Jacob’s personality. But vindication does not come easily. Jacob is injured in the confrontation with the angel of Esau, and as retribution for his own acts of deception, Jacob himself becomes a victim of deception when his own sons sell their brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt and Jacob mourns for Joseph for many many days.

While each of us may be able to physically separate ourselves from our pasts and from our families, the lingering effects of the separation never totally disappear.

May you be blessed.