Yaakov's Deceitful Run from Deceit

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley








By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



Once his beloved Rachel bore him a son, Yaakov decided that the time had come to leave Lavan’s service and return home.  He finds himself not only pleading for his freedom, however, but for Lavan to allow his wife and children to accompany him back: 


25 And it came to pass, when Rachel had borne Yosef, that Yaakov said unto Lavan, “Send me away, that I may go unto my own place and to my country.

26 Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, and let me go; for you know my service wherewith I have served you.”


The rationale for his pleading, as pointed out by Nachum Sarna in his commentary, is that Yaakov was working against the laws and traditions of the Ancient Near East.  If a master gives a wife to an ordinary slave, she and her offspring belong to the master and remain in the household even upon the manumission of the slave.  In fact, the decision to remain with one’s family can cause the slave to lose any remaining chance at freedom, as the Torah itself outlines in Parashat Mishpatim:


2 If you buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve, and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. 3 If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he is married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself. 5 But if the servant shall plainly say, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,” 6 Then his master shall bring him unto God, and shall bring him to the door or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever.


In last year’s shiur,[1] we described how the two names given by the protagonists, Yaakov and Lavan, to the mound where they enacted a covenant reflected their two differing understandings of the extended contract that they had agreed to.  To Yaakov, the last six years of his servitude reflected an entirely different sort of employment than the first fourteen years.  He entered into the agreement upon Lavan’s urgings; he sets the terms of the contract, explicitly noting that he was doing this to provide for his own family.  Yaakov did this as a free agent, and Lavan can make no claims on his earnings from this point in time.  Lavan, however, clearly understood that the last six years were an extension of the first fourteen.  This comes across most clearly in his plaintive complaint when the two finally meet for the last time:


43 And Lavan answered and said unto Yaakov, “The daughters are my daughters, and the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine; and what can I do this day for these my daughters, or for their children whom they have borne?”


In this week’s shiur, we will look at several issues arising from Yaakov’s flight from Lavan. 


The first hint that Yaakov perceives that all is not well comes not from Lavan, but from his sons.  Envious of Yaakov’s prosperity, they are overheard accusing Yaakov of taking away their father’s wealth.  That Lavan had sons was not known to us beforehand.  Rabbinic tradition suggests that they were born after Yaakov’s arrival in Haran (see Rashi’s comment on 30:27).  More likely, the sudden revelation of the fact that Lavan had male offspring comes to dissuade both the reader and Yaakov himself of another potential impression.  Until now, both we and Yaakov probably viewed Yaakov as Lavan’s likely heir.  Suddenly and dramatically, we realize that this is not so.  Whatever Yaakov gains for himself comes at the expense of others who are just as deserving. 


Upon receiving the Divine communication that the promise made at Beit-El was still in force, Yaakov chose to act.  He rallied his wives to his side, and both sensed that the change in their material fortunes would not last as long as they remained under their father’s care; they agreed to flee.  In addition, they viewed the turnaround in fortunes between Yaakov and their father as reflective of the Divine will.  However, one other issue motivates them:


14 And Rachel and Leah answered and said unto him, “Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father's house? 15 Are we not accounted by him strangers? For he has sold us, and has also quite devoured our price. 16 For all the riches which God has taken away from our father, which is ours and our children's. Now, then, whatever God has said unto you, do.”


For the first time, we hear of Lavan’s deceit towards his own daughters.  Until now, Lavan and Yaakov had engaged in a duel of wits, each one attempting to outsmart the other in their dealings.  This was noted on several occasions by Rashi during Yaakov’s first conversation with Rachel:


12 And Yaakov told Rachel that he was her father's brother and that he was Rivka's son; and she ran and told her father. 


Her father's brother - [Meaning:] a relative of her father, as in, "For we are kinsmen." Its Midrashic interpretation is: [Yaakov meant:] "If he [Lavan] intends to be deceitful, then I, too, am his brother in deception; but, if he is an honest person then, I, too, am the son of the righteous Rivka."


18 And Yaakov loved Rachel; and he said, “I will serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.”


Rachel your younger daughter - Why all these detailed characteristics? [This was] because he knew that he [Lavan] was a deceitful person. He said to him, "I will work for you for Rachel, and lest you claim [that I mean] a different Rachel, [one] from the street, therefore, I say, 'Your daughter.' And lest you say, 'I will change Leah's name and call her by the name Rachel,' therefore, I say 'the younger one.' Despite all this, it did him no good, for [in the end] he tricked him. 


In the use of guile, despite Yaakov’s boasting, Lavan demonstrated himself Yaakov’s equal.  He switched the daughters on Yaakov’s wedding night, leaving Yaakov with empty protests.  Yaakov bore the consequences of his loss for fourteen years.  Upon the second agreement, however, Yaakov finally began to gain the upper hand over Lavan.  Despite Lavan’s confidence that the deal for spotted and speckled goats and sheep would be profitable for him, Yaakov was not without resources.  Despite Lavan’s efforts to constantly change the terms of the contract, Yaakov was able to induce the flocks to bear more herds for him.  Over six years, his enterprise transformed him into a wealthy man, and for the first time, we sense that Yaakov was finally gaining the upper hand over his father-in-law.


Unwittingly and unknowingly, however, both Yaakov and Lavan faced someone even craftier and sneakier then themselves – Rachel.  While Yaakov figuratively stole Lavan’s heart, she engaged in literal theft.  She removed his idols from his house:


19 Now Lavan had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole the terafim that were her father's. 20 And Yaakov outwitted Lavan the Aramean, in that he told him not that he fled.


The commentators attempt to justify Rachel’s behavior.  Rashi piously suggests that her behavior was the ultimate act of filial loyalty – ridding her father’s house of idols.  The Rashbam appears to suggest that, mindful of the use of the terafim for divination purposes, Rachel sought to deprive Lavan of the means by which he could detect Yaakov’s whereabouts; he would hence be unable to give chase.  The Abrabanel even alludes to the possibility (which he rejects out of hand) that Rachel still clung to her father’s beliefs.  If so, however, it is difficult to explain her later behavior, placing them underneath her thighs during her time of impurity.  Clearly, if she was telling the truth, her actions represented the ultimate rejection and contempt of these objects.


What is clear, however, is that the two acts of theft, Rachel’s and Yaakov’s, are placed next to each other in order to create the impression of dishonesty that has permeated Yaakov’s entire sojourn in Aram.  Although they represent two different purposes – Yaakov deceived Lavan to separate himself from him, while the effect of Rachel’s theft was to provide the justification and final impetus for Lavan to pursue them - the result is to portray the ultimately untenable state of affairs that comprised Yaakov’s existence in Aram.  The sisters fought over whose husband he is, Lavan and Yaakov fought over his salary and the status of his spouses, and the rivalry between the children would explode upon their return to the Land of Israel.  All of this conflict culminated in Yaakov’s unwitting curse, due to his rash overconfidence, that would cause Rachel’s death because of all the deceitfulness. 


Fortunately, however, the parasha ends on a dramatic reversal.  Upon being vindicated, Yaakov turns to Lavan ferociously and exclaims:


36 And Yaakov was wroth, and he strove with Lavan. And Yaakov answered and said to Lavan, “What is my trespass? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued after me? 37 Whereas you have felt about all my belongings, what have you found of all your household belongings? Set it here before my brethren and your brethren, that they may judge between us two. 38 These twenty years have I been with you; your ewes and your she-goats have not cast their young, and the rams of your flocks have I not eaten. 39 That which was torn of beasts I brought not unto you; I bore the loss of it; of my hand did you require it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. 40 Thus I was: in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep fled from mine eyes. 41 These twenty years have I been in your house: I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock; and you have changed my wages ten times. 42 Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, been on my side, surely now had you sent me away empty. God has seen my affliction and the labor of my hands, and gave judgment last night.”


For the first time, we see Yaakov not as Lavan’s equal, but as his accuser.  Tauntingly, almost, he challenged his father-in-law to provide evidence of his wrongdoing.  He them insisted that any wrongdoing is on Lavan’s part – for the past twenty years, Yaakov had been the paradigm of honesty.  Despite Lavan’s dishonest behavior, Yaakov remained uncorrupted.  His ability to remain innocent under such trying circumstances, he realized, resulted from Hashem’s protection.  Hesitant in accepting his help at the beginning of the parasha, Yaakov finally recognized how important Hashem’s hidden protection had been throughout the years.