Translated by Kaeren Fish
The series of encounters that the Torah records between Lavan and Yaakov presents a relationship between a swindler and his victim. In the early stage of this relationship it is clear that Lavan is the deceiver and Yaakov is his victim; Lavan gives Yaakov his daughter Leah instead of Rachel:
“And it was, in the morning, behold – it was Leah, and he said to Lavan, What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you tricked me?” (Bereishit 29:25)
Later on, however, this relationship seems to be reversed, and from the verses it appears that Yaakov tricks Lavan using sticks that predetermine the color of the lambs that will be born to the flock. Similarly, Yaakov seems to trick Lavan in his flight from Lavan’s home and the theft of the terafim (by Rachel, Yaakov’s wife).
Let us take a closer look at this issue of deception. First we will address the question of how Yaakov permitted Lavan to deceive him in such simple and obvious matters. Then we will turn our attention to Lavan himself.
- Yaakov’s behavior in light of Lavan’s deception
Yaakov’s behavior in his relations with Lavan is puzzling:
- Why did Yaakov propose seven years of service for Rachel in the first place? Seemingly, a lower price would have sufficed.
- How is it possible that on his wedding night Yaakov failed to discern the identity of his bride, and thus was forced to labor for yet another seven years?
- Why did Yaakov not return home at the end of these fourteen years, remaining another six years in Lavan’s home?
Let us try to imagine Lavan’s way of thinking. In Chapter 24 we read about Avraham’s servant, who went to Padan Aram to find a wife for Yitzchak. Avraham was adamant that he would not send Yitzchak himself – and not only out of concern for the few days that Yitzchak would spend outside of Canaan. In dispatching the servant to find a bride, Avraham conveyed a message to his family in the north that he insisted that the woman follow her husband to Canaan, rather than Yitzchak joining his father-in-law’s household and remaining in Padan Aram. Avraham’s servant refused to partake of the banquet prepared for him in Betuel’s home – a matchmaking banquet – so long as he had not yet conveyed this message and obtained their consent for Rivka to accompany him back to Canaan. The impression arising from this chapter is that Betuel’s family readily agreed to the match, but was wary of sending Rivka to Canaan.
Esav married two Hittite women, and this enabled him to live close to his father’s home, in Chevron – the city of “sons of Het.” When he later married Aholivama, daughter of Ana, one of the captains of the Chori, he moved to Mount Se’ir, close to the sons of Se’ir the Chori – where Aholivama and his new father-in-law lived. Here, too, it seems that this was the accepted practice: the son-in-law would move in order to join the household of his bride’s parents.
Yaakov, who arrives with the intention of marrying one of Lavan’s daughters, at no stage declares his intention of taking his wife permanently to Canaan. It may be for this reason that the story of his marriage and his agreements with Lavan run into difficulties: Lavan is not willing to even contemplate the possibility of changing the local custom, and parting from his daughters.
We must assume that the Torah omits much of the negotiation between Yaakov and Lavan concerning Rachel. It seems likely that Yaakov would first have proposed a lower price. At the same time, unlike the servant of Avraham, who had the freedom to “turn to the right or to the left” (24:49), Yaakov must take a wife specifically from Lavan’s daughters. Lavan quickly learns to exploit this requirement, and when he identifies, at some stage of the negotiations, Yaakov’s intention of returning to his country with Rachel, he raises the price even higher. And so Yaakov ends up laboring for seven years, without even obtaining any explicit commitment that afterwards he will be able to take his wife to Canaan.
On the wedding night, Lavan exchanges Leah for Rachel. And Yaakov is left with no choice but to work for another seven years in order to marry Rachel.
A more difficult question is why Yaakov agreed to continue working for Lavan for the latter six years, after he had already ‘paid his dues’ for both his wives. Two possible answers arise here. One is that Lavan exploited the lack of clarity in their agreement with regard to taking the women to Canaan. Perhaps he argued that, even if this had been part of the agreement, it applied only with regard to the first bride (Leah), but not the second (Rachel). Yaakov could not extricate himself from this point of conflict, and so he was forced to agree to additional years in Charan, in return for a different form of payment.
Another possibility arises from the fact that, according to the plain text, Yosef was born at the end of the first fourteen years of Yaakov’s indenture. With his birth, Rachel prayed for an additional pregnancy and another son (30:24). The difficult journey back to Canaan would not offer optimal conditions for Rachel, who had been barren for many years, to achieve and maintain another pregnancy. She may have requested that the journey be delayed until God granted her another son. But the anticipated pregnancy eluded her, year after year, and in the meantime Yaakov remained unwillingly bound to further agreements with Lavan.
- Lavan’s behavior
Should Lavan be regarded as nothing more than a swindler who tries in any way that he can to obtain a higher price or whatever else he is after? Based on the extensive narrative that the Torah devotes to the story of Lavan and Yaakov, it appears to convey a more fundamental message concerning Lavan’s behavior.
In the parashat ha-bikkurim – the declaration recited by the pilgrim bringing his first fruits to the Temple – the Torah compares Lavan’s treatment of Yaakov with the treatment that Pharaoh, king of Egypt, metes out to Bnei Yisrael, who are living in his country:
“And you shall speak and say before the Lord your God: An Aramean sought to destroy my father, and he went down to Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation – great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians were evil towards us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage, and when we cried to the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked upon our affliction, and our labor, and our oppression.” (Devarim 26:5-7)
Both Lavan and Pharaoh took in strangers in distress: Lavan welcomed Yaakov, who was fleeing from Esav, and Pharaoh took in Yaakov’s family, who were escaping the famine in Canaan. Both Lavan and Pharaoh exploited the fact that they were the lords of the land and the rescuers of their foreign guests, effectively turning them into slaves. Pharaoh’s treatment of Bnei Yisrael is familiar: Lavan, too, through his cunning and smooth words, tried to turn Yaakov into an eternal servant, without even paying him his due.
The Torah insists that no one should exploit the distress of a stranger from afar, who does not understand the local language and culture, and needs support and a refuge. The examples representing the background to this commandment are Yaakov in Aram and Bnei Yisrael in Egypt.
There is another commandment in the Torah that is likewise connected to Yaakov’s status in Lavan’s home:
“You shall not deliver to his master the servant who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of your gates, wherever is good for him; you shall not oppress him.” (Devarim 23:16-17)
Both in Yaakov’s case, in Lavan’s house, and in the case of Bnei Yisrael in Egypt, God was watching over the oppressed. God did not allow the master’s oppression of the seeker of refuge to continue forever; ultimately He delivered the “servant” from the hands of the “master.”
A similar scenario was nearly reenacted by David and Naval in between Maon and Carmel, in the Judean desert. David and his men were seeking refuge:
“David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam, and when his brothers and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him. And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves to him, and he became a captain over them, and there were with him about four hundred men.” (Shmuel I 22:1-2)
Like David, every member of this group is fleeing from some sort of distress or oppression.
Naval the Carmelite tries to exploit this weakness and to avoid paying what he owes them for their labor and the risks they take upon themselves in tending his flock and the flocks of the other farmers of Carmel:
“And Naval answered David’s servants and he said, Who is David? And who is the son of Yishai? There are many servants nowadays that break away every man from his master…” (25:10)
In response to this treachery David takes up his sword, and a violent, bloody encounter is prevented at the last moment only thanks to the wisdom of Avigayil.
Yaakov never draws his sword against Lavan, but he does adopt the weapon of counter-deception – as recounted in the continuation of our parasha.
 Many have questioned how it is possible that Yaakov did not notice the switch, and some scholars have offered suggestions that border on contempt for our forefathers. Chazal’s answer is that Yaakov gave Rachel certain signs, but she conveyed them to Leah, in order to save her humiliation (Rashi, 29:25). A different possible answer is that Yaakov, out of great piety, was not attentive (see the view of R. Eliezer in Nedarim 20b). A seemingly more plausible explanation is that when Yaakov first met Rachel, she was a girl (according to the calculations of the Seder Olam, she was 15 when they first met, and 22 when they married). During the years of Yaakov’s labor, Lavan prevented them from meeting, and so while Rachel was growing up and changing, Yaakov had no opportunity to follow this development. It is quite possible that Rachel and Leah were also very similar, such that, in the darkness, Yaakov could not tell them apart.