“The Deceivers are Deceived”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, we find Jacob fleeing for his life from his brother Esau’s wrath, because Jacob had deceived Esau of his birthright and stolen his brother’s blessing.

Both Isaac and Rebecca urge Jacob to run to Paddan-Aram, to the house of Bethuel, Rebecca’s father, and to take a wife from there of the daughters of Laban, Rebecca’s brother.

What was the possible purpose of sending Jacob, whom the Torah (Genesis 25:27) calls an אִישׁ תָּם ,“ish tam,” an innocent man, to dwell in the house of Laban, the most ruthless con-man of the ancient Middle East? (see Vayeitzei 5763-2002)

It could very well be that both Rebecca and Isaac are determined to wean their son, Jacob, from his propensity of deceiving others, by sending him to live with his exceedingly unprincipled uncle. The would-be “innocent” Jacob is no match for his wily Uncle Laban, who literally “fleeces” poor Jacob.

Immediately upon his arrival at his uncle’s home, Laban exploits Jacob, making him work for several weeks before offering him the possibility of compensation. Jacob then offers to work for Laban for seven years for the hand of Laban’s beautiful daughter, Rachel. Ruthless Laban, however, at the last moment, switches his daughters and gives Jacob his daughter Leah instead. In this manner, Laban forces Jacob to work an extra seven years for Rachel.

Finally, when Laban attempts to spell out what Jacob’s compensation will be as a married man, Laban deceives Jacob by removing all the healthy, white sheep and the strong goats, so that Jacob’s compensation would be only the weak and spotted animals.

G-d is with Jacob, and the weak animals give birth to the healthy animals while the inferior ones go to Laban.

After 20 years of abuse, a desperate Jacob finally calls both his wives, Rachel and Leah, into the field for a consultation and says (Genesis 31:5-6): רֹאֶה אָנֹכִי אֶת פְּנֵי אֲבִיכֶן כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ אֵלַי כִּתְמֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם, וֵאלֹהֵי אָבִי הָיָה עִמָּדִי. וְאַתֵּנָה יְדַעְתֶּן, כִּי בְּכָל כֹּחִי עָבַדְתִּי אֶת אֲבִיכֶן “I have noticed that your father’s disposition is not toward me as in earlier days; but the G-d of my father was with me. Now you have known that it was with all my might that I served your father, yet your father mocked me and changed my wage a hundred times. But G-d did not permit him to harm me.”

Both Rachel and Leah agree that Laban has not treated their husband or their family fairly. In fact, they accuse their father, Laban, of treating his own daughters and grandchildren as strangers, and of stealing all their wherewithal.

It was then, that Jacob arose, took his wives and children, and led them away from Laban to begin the long trek to his father Isaac’s house, in the land of Canaan.

Eventually, Laban hears of Jacob’s departure, chases after him, and a major confrontation takes place. Laban wants to harm Jacob, but G-d prevents him from doing so. Eventually, they separate, each going to their own land.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber looks at this portion from the point of view of Jewish business law and doctrine. Rabbi Filber notes that the Torah was the first legal document to champion the rights of the worker. The Torah, in Leviticus 19:13, writes, לֹא תָלִין פְּעֻלַּת שָׂכִיר אִתְּךָ עַד בֹּקֶר , A worker’s wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning. In Deuteronomy 24:15, the Torah explains that one must pay a hired person on the same day,כִּי עָנִי הוּא, וְאֵלָיו הוּא נֹשֵׂא אֶת נַפְשׁוֹ , for he is poor and his life depends on it.

Rabbi Filber cites the Ohr HaChaim, who states that failing to pay a salary on time is not only sinful for failing to fulfill a financial obligation, but is actually an issue of life and death. Workers are not slaves. The Torah in Leviticus 25:55 states, כִּי לִי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדִים , the People of Israel cannot be servants to other servants, only to G-d. That is why workers have the prerogative to leave their employers even in the middle of the working day (Bava Metzia 10a).

Rabbi Filber cogently points out that employer-employee issues are not one-sided. Just as an employer may not exploit an employee, an employee may not take unfair advantage of his employer as well. When he works, a laborer must work with total commitment. If he has to say בִּרְכַּת הַמָּזוֹן , birkat hamazon (Grace After Meals), he should say the shortened version so he doesn’t steal time from his employer. This is what Jacob meant when he said to his wives, בְּכָל כֹּחִי עָבַדְתִּי אֶת אֲבִיכֶן,With all my strength, I worked for your father.”

Maimonides states that an employee must behave in an ethical manner. A worker who was hired to work during the day, is not permitted to do the work at night and rent himself out during the day to perform another job. He may not starve himself and give his food to his children, because he will not be sufficiently strong to do the work that he was hired to do.

Rabbi Filber cites the beautiful Midrash Talpiot concerning Enoch, the descendant of Seth. The Torah (Genesis 5:24) says, וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱ־לֹקִים, וְאֵינֶנּוּ, כִּי לָקַח אֹתוֹ אֱ־לֹקִים, And Enoch walked with G-d; then he was no more, for G-d had taken him. What did Enoch do to deserve to be taken?

Says the Midrash: Enoch, who was a shoemaker, would offer up a special prayer before every stitch, to dedicate his spiritual intentions to the Creator. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the great ethicist, comments on this Midrash saying that one may not conclude that Enoch’s spiritual musings were intended to bring him closer to G-d at the expense of the owner of the shoes, since that is forbidden. Rather, Enoch’s intentions were to focus his attention on making certain that every single stitch was properly sewn and sufficiently strong so that the shoes he produced would be the best quality for their owners.

There is not a single story in the Torah, or even a single line or word, that doesn’t have a cogent eternal message. We are fortunate, to not only learn from the good deeds of our ancestors, but also from their mistakes. It is virtually impossible to turn a page in our Scriptures or any of our holy books, without learning a life lesson that has ultimate and eternal value.

May you be blessed.