Mounds and Meat

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley






In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner





By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





Our parasha ends dramatically with Yaakov's failed attempt to flee from Lavan while the latter was shearing his sheep.  This week, we will focus on some perplexing questions related to this episode.


 Upon catching up with the fleeing Yaakov, Lavan accuses Yaakov of having stolen his idols.  Yaakov emphatically denies the accusation and challenges Lavan to search all of Yaakov's possessions.  When Lavan fails to produce any evidence, Yaakov launches into a counter-accusation; Lavan is, in fact, the one at fault, for he has cheated Yaakov for twenty years, constantly changing his wages despite his exemplarily honest behavior.  Lavan does not respond to Yaakov.  Instead, he declares that all of Yaakov's wives and children are actually his:


The daughters are my daughters, and the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine.  Yet, for my daughters, what can I do for them this day, or for their children whom they have borne?  Come, then, let us make a covenant, you and I, and let it be for a witness between you and me.  (31:43-44)


What does Lavan intend by this assertion?  Furthermore, Lavan immediately switches from an aggressive stance to an apparently friendly suggestion that Yaakov and he seal a covenant together. 


The offer to enter into an agreement is met enthusiastically by Yaakov, who quickly tells his family to assist him in piling stones, and leads to the joint breaking of bread at the site.  Once this occurs, a strange naming game occurs.  Yaakov calls the site "Gal-Eid," while Lavan calls it "Yegar-Sahaduta."  Both Yaakov and Lavan take oaths, but their oaths differ.  Lavan chooses a more inclusive form, the name of the God of Avraham and the god of Nachor and their father (possibly Terach), while Yaakov chooses to swear only by the "fear" of Yitzchak his father.  Finally, after the oath, Yaakov and his family continue to eat, but Lavan and his colleagues are not mentioned and apparently do not partake of the meat. 


To explain the significance of this episode, we will have to investigate deeper and suggest that a common thread lies beneath that can explain all of the curiosities in Yaakov's behavior. 




Lavan's aggressive intention in declaring that Yaakov's family belongs to him, especially given his temperate offer afterwards to join in a covenant, has been the discussion of many commentators.  Some modern writers suggest that Lavan attempts to maintain ancient norms, echoes of which are found in the Torah (see Exodus 21), that the entire clan and all family property belong to the family chief.  When servants leave, their wives and children are to remain behind with the master.  However, due to the Divine warning that Lavan received the night before reaching Yaakov, Lavan is unable to enforce this law.  He acknowledges his impotence midway through his speech; by naming Yaakov as an equal, he concedes that his son-in-law no longer enjoys the status of a servant.[1]  Realizing that Yaakov enjoys Divine protection, Lavan takes steps to protect himself so that Yaakov will not make any attempt to move against him in a aggressive manner in the future. 


The more traditional understanding, which is that Lavan's intentions were consistently aggressive throughout his speech, can be found in the detailed interpretation of the Ketav Ve-Kabbala, written by Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg in the beginning of the 19th century:


The daughters are my daughters… – And you are afraid that I would steal them from you?  How can it be stealing when everything and everyone belongs to me?

and the flocks are my flocks – How dare you complain regarding the fact that I changed your wages.  All the flocks that you have came from me, and only through your trickery were you able to acquire them … and you cannot accuse me of changing your wages for, in reality, everything I gave you was in the status of a gift anyways. 

and all that you see is mine – When I went through your goods (while searching for the idols), I see how many items that are not necessary are found among your possessions, and they are mine … for you came to me empty-handed.  Therefore, had I so desired, I would have sent you back empty-handed as well.  Only the Divine warning prevents me from doing so.

Yet, for my daughters, what can I do to them this day or for their children whom they have borne? – The Torah uses the (extra) words "to them" to emphasize that Lavan spoke about them only indirectly, like a person who is forced to speak to a person that he despises and cannot bear to look at their face while conversing with them.  He does not acknowledge the children; it is as if strangers bore them.  No signs of love or closeness are found in his words.

Come, then, let us make a covenant, you and I – After the wicked one was brazen enough to justify his evil actions in the face of the righteous one (Yaakov), he changed his tone, as wicked people do, to speak in a friendly tone while maintaining the hatred in their hearts, in an attempts to clothe and conceal their despicable behavior from the eyes of onlookers…


Fascinatingly, the Ramban is almost alone amongst the traditional commentaries in that he does not sense in Lavan's closing words any sense of animosity or anger.  Instead, he portrays Lavan as a loving grandfather who came to part from his beloved family one final time:


The more correct interpretation appears to be that Lavan spoke in a pitying, loving manner.  Yet, for my daughters, what can I do for them this day – he became merciful towards them, for they were his daughters; or for their children whom they have borne? - in his house, and therefore considered them as part of his own family.  And he apologized to Yaakov here, saying "I only came after you to see my daughters and grandchildren again.  What can I do for them now?  Only ask you to vow that you will never cause them any pain."




The Ramban understanding of Lavan's conciliatory behavior and his underlying motivations, which culminate in his peace offering and establishment of covenant, can help explain the peculiarities of Yaakov's further actions.  Sensing that Lavan is making every attempt to fuse the families together, Yaakov wants to ensure that the covenant does just the opposite.  Covenants can bind two groups together, even forever – the covenants between God and Avraham and later the Jewish people are the prime example.  On the other hand, covenants can also serve to outline the boundaries between two separate groups.  This type we saw in last week's parasha in the covenant between Yitzchak and Avimelekh. 


Upon reaching a decision to agree to a covenant with Lavan, Yaakov takes every step possible to ensure that there is no misunderstanding as to its purpose.  With every step taken by Lavan to maintain the connection between himself and Yaakov (and Yaakov's family), Yaakov immediately sets up another barrier.  Once the stones are arranged, the two sides sit down to eat.  Lavan calls the spot "Yegar-Sahaduta" – "the gathering is witness."  To Lavan, what is important is not the gathering of the stones, but that it parallels and affirms the gathering of the two sides together.  Yaakov, on the other hand, calls it "Gal-Eid."  The mound itself, the barrier between the two groups, is the witness. 


Lavan, however, does not accept Yaakov's subtle rejection of his interpretation.  Instead, he vows again – in the name of the God of Avraham and the god of Nachor and their father.  Given what we have written above, we understand now that this is a crafty attempt to force Yaakov to acknowledge his grandfather Terach, and by extension, admit that he maintains some connection to Lavan.  Possibly, Lavan uses the God of Avraham for Yaakov's sake, the god of Nachor for his own sake, and hints towards Terach to unify the two.  We now appreciate the nature of Yaakov response – he only mentions the Fear of Yitzchak.  Stopping there, Yaakov removes any doubt as to his understanding of the covenant and the intentions.  He makes a clean break with Terach and his descendants.  The two groups are to go their separate ways, and no hint of a common past will be left behind. 


D.        WHY THE MEAT


One of the greatest minds in Jewry at the beginning of the 20th century, R. Meir Simcha Ha-Kohen, more popularly known as the Meshekh Chokhma, finds the serving of meat dishes in the second meal, attended only by Yaakov and his family, significant:


Until now, the word "zevach" – sacrifice - has not been used by the Torah, only "mizbe'ach" – an altar.  [The Meshekh Chokhma provides a technical explanation as to the differing processes used by Jews and non-Jews in slaughtering animals to explain the differing terms.] … But once they had arrived near the boundaries of the Land of Israel, Yaakov renewed the laws of shechita – the distinctively Jewish manner of slaughtering animals.  (Commentary to 31:54)


The Meshekh Chokhma's interpretation explains the two different meals, as well as what Yaakov intends them to represent.  When sitting down to outline a peace treaty, the most universal of human staples, bread, can be used.  But to remind his children of their distinctiveness and what the ceremony really represented, Yaakov throws one more meal, containing meat slaughtered by Jewish law; in this way, others would recognize that the family of Yaakov is destined to become "a people that dwells alone."

[1] Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom, p. 441.