Yaakov and Lavan

  • Rav Michael Hattin






Yaakov and Lavan


By Rav Michael Hattin





Parashat Vayeitze opens with Yaakov in flight from his brother Esav.  Following his mother's advice and bearing his father's blessings, Yaakov heads eastwards to Aram, Rivka's birthplace.  There, like his father before him, he will find his wife.  The two parashiyot of Vayeitze and Vayishlach effectively cover Yaakov's most productive years, for it is within them that he will forge his relationship with God.  Significantly, these two parashiyot are dominated by two towering figures, both of whom leave a lasting impression on Yaakov's progress, and respectively they constitute striking foils to his own life. Lavan his uncle and Esav his brother are the men in whose shadow Yaakov must act, and over the course of the next two weeks we shall explore each of them in turn.  In the end, we shall attempt to understand their contribution to Yaakov's development, as well as try to pinpoint what meaningful lessons may be derived from their example for our own lives.   


Lavan, Rivka's Brother


Our first, rather unflattering meetings with Lavan take place in Parashat Chayei Sara.  There, Rivka had offered Eliezer and the camels water to drink; he, in turn, had presented her with a golden nose ring and two golden bracelets.  After ascertaining her identity and securing a place for the night in her father's home, the servant had fallen on his knees and expressed his gratitude to God.  Rivka, in the meantime, ran home to tell her family about the arrival of Avraham's servant. 


"Rivka had a brother whose name was Lavan, and Lavan ran outside to greet the man at the spring.  When he had seen the golden nose ring and the bracelets on his sister's wrist, and had heard Rivka's words saying 'this is what the man said to me,' he approached the man who was standing beside the camels near the spring.  Lavan said to him 'Come, blessed of God!  Why should you stand outside?  Behold, I have cleaned the house and set aside a place for the camels!'" (Bereishit 24:29-31). 


Although Lavan presents himself as being genuinely hospitable to the tired traveler, the Torah indicates that Lavan's initial enthusiasm had actually been ignited by the expensive golden jewelry and favorable words with which his young sister had returned home.  In a pattern to be consistently repeated throughout the story of Yaakov's interaction with him, Lavan here betrays his true colors as an avaricious and opportunistic individual who is nevertheless able to conceal his true objectives of self-gain and profit beneath the veneer of social propriety.


As Eliezer excitedly recounts the adventures of his journey and the Divine Providence that had singled out Rivka as the chosen mate for Yitzchak, her family listens attentively.  Finishing his tale, he unhesitatingly asks them to release Rivka to his responsibility so that she might travel back to Canaan with him. 


"Lavan and Betuel answered: 'this thing has come forth from God!  We can say nothing to you, neither good nor bad.  Behold, here is Rivka before you, take her and go.  Let her become the wife of your master's son, as God has spoken.'  When Avraham's servant heard their words, he prostrated himself before God" (Bereishit 24:50-52). 


Significantly, Lavan here positions himself before his father in acting in Rivka's interests, for the original Hebrew text makes it clear that he initiates the response to Eliezer.  No doubt he wants to secure a bright future on her behalf, and marriage to the wealthy scion of the kind Avraham and Sarah is certainly to her advantage. 


When the anxious servant hears their words, he again expresses his gratitude to God, and then proceeds to shower Rivka with presents of gold, silver and clothing.  Not neglecting her family, he presents her mother and brother (Lavan) with precious gifts, and a festive banquet is laid out for all.  Eliezer and his men retire for the night, no doubt sleeping the pleasant sleep of those who have successfully and swiftly accomplished their tasks.  The next morning they arise, and Eliezer, not wanting to lose the unexpected momentum, asks for their leave. 


"Her brother and mother said: 'let the maiden remain with us for ten months or a year, and then she may go.'  He said to them: 'Do not cause me to tarry, for God has granted my mission success.  Send me, so that I may return to my master.'  They responded: 'Let us call the maiden and ask her.'" (Bereishit 24:53-57)


Here again, Lavan's initial offer (for once again, the Torah indicates that he is instrumental in the discussions) is presented as an unreserved expression of generosity and good-heartedness.  As it becomes apparent to him, however, that delaying matters may indeed result in the realization of additional gains, he tempers his proposal with a seemingly not unreasonable qualification.  Only Rivka's (unexpected?) assent foils the plan, and instead, she is sent off with her family's poignant blessings.  As above, Lavan casts himself as a considerate and honorable figure acting in consonance with the best interests of his sister and according to socially accepted mores, but other more sinister factors appear to be at work. 


Welcoming Yaakov into the Household


It will be many decades before Lavan and his Canaanite kin meet again, this time in the aftermath of Yaakov seizing the patriarchal blessing from his brother.  As our parasha of Vayeitze opens, Yaakov is in flight from home and hearth, escaping the wrath of Esav.  Following his mother's directive, he travels eastwards towards her Mesopotamian home, there to find a wife from among the daughters of Lavan, Rivka's brother, who in the interim appears to have succeeded his father as the clan elder.  Buoyed by a Divine vision of assistance and guidance but unsure of what lies ahead, Yaakov eventually makes his way to the land of Aram, the birthplace of his mother.  Chancing upon the shepherds at the well, he inquires of them concerning Lavan.  Just at that moment, Rachel, Lavan's daughter, appears with the sheep of her father, and Yaakov embraces her and cries.  Quickly, she runs to tell her father of Yaakov's arrival. 


"When Lavan heard that Yaakov his sister's son had arrived, he ran to meet him.  He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his house.  There, Yaakov recounted to him all that had transpired.  Lavan remarked: 'You are my own bone and flesh,!' and Yaakov stayed with him for a period of a month.  Lavan said to Yaakov: 'Just because you are my kin, should you work for me for no pay?  Tell me what is your wage'" (Bereishit 29:13-15).


Once more, Lavan throws his home open for an unfortunate runaway, showing him love and compassion, and lending a receptive ear to Yaakov's plight.  Lavan, though he has never met his nephew, is quick to emphasize their deep familial attachment, and Yaakov is cordially invited to become part of the household.  Could Lavan's enthusiastic welcome have been conditioned by memories of Eliezer's lucrative visit years before?  It would appear that during the course of that first month, Yaakov had not idly whiled away the time, but had in fact commenced working for Lavan in tending his sheep.  Lavan, in an outward display of integrity that is his hallmark, invites Yaakov to set a wage.  Having already met the acquaintance of Rachel and been impressed with her bearing, Yaakov offers to serve Lavan for a period of seven years in order to win her hand in marriage.  To this, Lavan readily agrees, and Yaakov commences his term of work.  The time passes and Yaakov asks for Rachel's hand; Lavan gathers the people of the area and prepares a banquet.  As night falls and the guests leave, Lavan, in a brazen act of deception, surreptitiously replaces Rachel his younger daughter with Leah his older one.  It is not until the next morning that Yaakov discovers the ruse:


"...What have you done to me?  Did I not serve you for Rachel?  Why did you deceive me?"  Lavan, unruffled by the seriousness of the accusation, responds: "In our place, it is not done to marry off the younger before the older.  Complete the week of celebration for Leah, and then we shall give you Rachel, in return for seven more years of your service'" (Bereishit 29:26-27).


Leah's Marriage


In this most telling of episodes, Lavan's conduct is remarkable on three counts.  First of all, although he readily agrees to the terms that Yaakov initially proposes, he wastes no time in completely rewriting those terms to suit his own goals.  Let us note that just prior to Yaakov's proposal, the Torah parenthetically remarks that,


"Lavan had two daughters, Leah and Rachel.  Leah's eyes were 'RaKot' (literally 'soft'), but Rachel was of beautiful form and appearance" (Bereishit 29:16-17). 


The commentaries offer an array of explanations for the exact nature of Leah's visual deficiency, but what is clear is that the Torah contrasts that deficiency with Rachel's beauty.  In other words, the Torah employs a polite circumlocution to indicate that Leah may have possessed other sterling qualities, but did not possess the physical beauty of her younger sibling.  Thus, as the seven years draw to a close and Leah is still unmarried, Lavan decides that Yaakov's trusting offer presents an excellent opportunity for him to find his daughter a hard-working husband and thus avoid the risk of her remaining a spinster. 


Secondly, rather than admitting his deviousness and expressing remorse for his conduct, Lavan righteously wraps his vile act in the mantle of civility by invoking his heightened sensitivity to the community standards of which they are a part.  It may indeed be the case that in Charan the younger is not to be married before the older, but if Lavan had even a shred of decency he would have made that clear to Yaakov from the outset.  Lavan thus commits the contemptible crime of betraying the precious bond of trust between individuals in the name of some faceless convention against which there can be no recourse.


Thirdly, there can be no doubt that Lavan is motivated not solely by care for Leah's future, but by a calculated concern for his own selfish objectives as well.  As the later narrative makes clear, Yaakov is a good and conscientious worker.  No doubt, Lavan's flocks have increased substantially under his careful watch, and Lavan is anxious not to lose Yaakov's expertise.  By tying Yaakov's marriage to Rachel to a second seven years of service, Lavan is not only securing Leah's future, for that had already been accomplished by his exchange under the marriage canopy.  Instead, Lavan plays upon Yaakov's vulnerable state to extract an additional term of work in order to ensure his own success, all of course at Yaakov's emotional and physical expense.


Yaakov's Wages


The fourteen years of interminable service eventually draw to a close, and Yaakov understandably begins to consider his own future and the welfare of his own family. 


"After Rachel had given birth to Yosef, Yaakov said to Lavan: 'Let me leave so that I may return to my home and to my land.  Give me my wives and children for whom I have served you, and I will go, for you know how selflessly I have served.'  Lavan said:   'Have I not found favor in your eyes?  I have ascertained through divination that God has blessed me on your account.'  He said further: 'Name your price from me and I will give it...'" (Bereishit 30:25-28) 


The dialogue that follows, concerning the speckled, spotted and streaked sheep and goats, is obscure and enigmatic, and all of the classical commentaries grapple with its meaning.  The most straightforward reading suggests the following: Yaakov had requested all of the spotted and streaked lambs and goats, as well as any sheep with dark markings in Lavan's flocks, as his payment.  Since white sheep and black goats predominate in this region of the world, Yaakov would be asking for a relatively small percentage of Lavan's flock.  Although Lavan readily agrees to Yaakov's terms, as is his custom, he then does everything within his power to manipulate matters so that Yaakov is left with nothing.  Except by employing a stratagem borne of Divine inspiration that allows Yaakov to nonetheless secure his due, he would indeed have gone forth from Lavan's house empty-handed.  Instead, in what serves as the turning point of the story, Yaakov is able to pile success upon success, for no matter how often Lavan changes the terms of payment, the flocks unexpectedly conspire against him by yielding the very offspring that Lavan designates as Yaakov's wages!


The Escape


Thus, over the course of six additional years of labor, Yaakov is able to acquire sizable flocks of his own, and this inevitably arouses the jealousy and enmity of Lavan's children and household.  Sensing a serious change in Lavan's temperament, and heeding a Divine call to finally head home, Yaakov prepares to flee Lavan's estate.  His wives readily agree to his plan, and seizing upon the opportunity of Lavan's temporary absence, Yaakov loads up his family, packs his belongings, and drives his flocks westwards towards Canaan.  On the third day after their flight, Lavan receives the news and gives chase, eventually overtaking the fugitive group on the Heights of Gilead, east of the Jordan River.  God, however, unexpectedly appears to Lavan in a night dream and warns him from attempting to turn Yaakov back.  In the remarkable exchange that transpires on the morrow, Lavan feigns hurt feelings, and avers that had he known of their departure, he would have sent them forth with "celebration and song, the drum and the harp!" (Bereishit 31:27). 


After Lavan accuses him of theft but fails to uncover any evidence of wrongdoing, Yaakov finally erupts in a cathartic release of frustration:


"Yaakov became angry and strove with Lavan, saying: 'What is my transgression and iniquity that you have pursued me so?  You have handled all of my things but what have you found that is from your house? Place it down before your relatives and mine, so that they might judge between us!  During the twenty years that I was with you, your sheep and goats never lost their young, nor did I consume a single ram from the flock.  I never presented you with an attacked animal but rather made up the deficiency myself, for so you demanded.  Whether stolen by day or by night, you held me responsible.  By day I was consumed by scorching heat and by frost at night, and the sleep was snatched from my eyes.  For twenty years I have been in your household – for fourteen years I served you for your two daughters, and six years for your sheep, and you changed my wages ten times!  If the God of my ancestors, the God of Avraham and the Dread of Yitzchak, had not been with me, you would have sent me away empty-handed.  But God saw my plight and the effort of my hands, and last night He rendered judgement!'" (Bereishit 31:36-42)


Yaakov's Outburst


The above quotation, the contents of which significantly Lavan never disputes, makes it abundantly clear that notwithstanding Lavan's deplorable conduct, Yaakov had succeeded in maintaining his integrity.  Bowing to Lavan's impossible demands, Yaakov was a loyal shepherd, for the sheep under his charge never lost their young.  He had avoided acts that were acceptable according to convention, for a shepherd is typically permitted to eat from the sheep as circumstance demands.  He had been held responsible for attack and theft, although the shepherd is customarily absolved from making restitution for losses beyond his control.  And all while he had remained devoted, putting Lavan's welfare above his own.  Not even when Lavan had unjustly changed the terms of his wages had Yaakov reacted in kind.


What is most striking about Yaakov's litany is that it casts the contrast between himself and his uncle in most sharp relief.  Lavan champions himself as an exemplar of uprightness, of concern for others, of attentiveness to social mores. Yet, he has consistently acted with veiled unscrupulousness, trampling the rights of others and overlooking ethical conventions when they have conflicted with his own agenda of self-promotion.  Yaakov, misrepresented ever since his youth as the wily deceiver, instead emerges as the paradigm of probity, never attempting to secure what is rightfully his through unjust means.  Even on the eve of his sudden departure, no doubt never intending to see Lavan again, Yaakov knowingly refuses to take anything of Lavan's with him, for that would have constituted theft.


Understanding Lavan's True Colors


Perhaps we are now in a position to understand the significance of Lavan's name, for in the Torah all names carry meaning.  'Lavan' literally means 'white,' and in Biblical usage, white is often a synonym for blamelessness, innocence and purity (see Yeshayahu/Isaiah 1:18, Tehillim/Psalms 51:9).  Lavan, as we have seen, is hardly a paradigm of virtue, for he perpetually takes advantage of those around him to suit his nefarious purposes.  At the same time, however, he isn't a tyrant in the usual sense of the term, for he always presents his actions as upstanding and socially acceptable.  In essence, his public persona is 'lavan' or white, for he invariably coats his exterior actions with a veneer of respectability.  At the same time, there is a calculating and manipulative underpinning to his behavior that exposes those acts for what they truly are - corrupt, self-serving misdeeds that are reprehensible.


I regard it as more than mere coincidence that Lavan is the only personality in the Torah described as 'HaArami' or 'the Aramean.'  Although as a rule I tend to avoid fanciful impositions on the text, it is difficult to overlook the fact that a simple rearrangement of the letters of his name yields not 'LaVaN HaARaMi' (Lavan the Aramean) but rather 'NaVaL HaRaMAi' (the vile deceiver).  This is especially cogent in light of the fact that on the morrow of his marriage to Leah, Yaakov exclaims: "What have you done to me?  Did I not serve you for Rachel?  Why did you deceive me,?" where the Hebrew verb 'deceive' is 'RiMitani' from the same root RaMA.  It is as if the Torah is suggesting that Lavan may present himself as upright and honest, but those are only his surface qualities.  There is an ominous aspect to the man that is just as real (although less evident), and it is this aspect that in the end is decisive.  Next week, God willing, we shall continue to explore the personalities of Lavan and Esav, and consider the reason why Yaakov must spend his formative years in their unsavory company.




Shabbat Shalom