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Parashat Vayetze

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Parashat Vayetze 5760/1999

Who's Afraid of Laban the Aramean?

(or: Profile of a frustrated uncle)

Prof. Yehudah Friedlander


In Parshat Va-Yera (22:23) the Torah mentions that Bethuel was the father of Rebekah, but does not mention Laban, who was older than Rebekah (cf. Nahmanides on this verse). We do not meet Laban until Parshat Hayei Sarah (24:29), where he is introduced as Rebekah's brother.

The aggadah dwells on the significance of his name, giving two diametrically opposed views. Genesis Rabbah (60.5) says: "'Now Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban.' Rabbi Isaac says this was to his credit: paradochos. Rabbi Berachya said it was to his discredit: purely wicked (lit.: whitened (meluban) in wickedness)." The word paradochos, or paradachsos (according to the Arukh), means 'extremely white' in Greek. According to Rashi, Rabbi Isaac's interpretation for the good meant that "he was a ruler, ... and used to settle disputes between people, making justice come to light," i.e., adjudicating the cases thoroughly and well. (Compare the expression in Numbers Rabbah 12.4: "The Torah is melubenet, made perfectly clear, by its words.") Rabbi Berachya's unfavorable interpretation -- whitened in wickedness -- meant well-seasoned and quick in crime. In short, these homilies do not relate to the concrete color of Laban's skin, but interpret his color as symbolic of his actions. Let us see how these two positions, "white-hot in wickedness" and "one who whitens or clarifies the law" are reflected in the life and deeds of Laban the Aramean, Rebekah's brother.

Laban first appears in Parashat Hayei Sarah in connection with his seeing "the nose-ring and the bands on his sister's arms" (24:30). The Torah sets Rebekah's natural and altruistic generosity to Eliezer against Laban's reception of him, which leaves room for varying interpretations. Meshekh Hokhmah (1829), authored by Rabbi Meir Simhah ha-Cohen of Dvinsk, calls attention to the precise details of that biblical narrative. First the Torah tells how Laban "ran out to the man at the spring" (24:29); then, after seeing the gifts Rebekah received and after hearing her say, "Thus the man spoke to me," the Torah says, "he went up to the man" (24:30). In other words, he slowed down and approached him at an easy gait . Continuing in the midrashic tradition, Meshekh Hokhmah explains the change in gait as Laban approached Eliezer by the fact that at first "Laban believed Eliezer had come to take him as a husband for the daughter that had been born to him ... and therefore he ran. But, after looking closer and seeing the nose-ring and bracelets and hearing Rebekah's report of what the man had said, he realized that Rebekah alone was the object of what he saw happening. When he realized that Eliezer had only Rebekah in mind, to take her to be the bride of Abraham's son, he approached the man more slowly." The explanation given in Meshekh Hokhmah fills in some gaps in the plot, penetrating to the depths of the frustrated soul of the hero. This explication of Laban's disappointment will help us understand what follows.

In Parashat Va-Yetze the basic plot recurs with similar details (29:10-17), only this time it was not Laban's sister who ran home, but his daughter Rachel; and this time, it seems, Laban understood the reason for Jacob's visit. Therefore, "on hearing the news of his sister's son Jacob, Laban ran to greet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and took him into his house" (29:13). However, unlike the gift-laden Rebekah, Rachel came home without any gifts whatsoever and Laban, in the heat of excitement, presumably did not notice this, but hurried towards Jacob; and again he suffered painful disappointment. Eliezer had come to Aram with ten laden camels, whereas Jacob came utterly destitute. In the story of Eliezer and Rebekah, Laban was without initiative, whereas this time he took the initiative into his own hands. Jacob, however, knew full well with whom he had to deal and was prepared for the anticipated showdown.

The aggadah dwells on the two formulations that Jacob used to introduce himself to Rachel: on the one hand, "that he was her father's kinsman [lit.: brother]" [actually, son of her father's sister], and on the other, "that he was Rebekah's son" (v. 12). Genesis Rabbah 70.10 remarks, "That is to say, if Laban will act deceitfully, then he was 'her father's kinsman,'i.e. Jacob could be just as deceitful, and if Laban were to act righteously, then 'he was Rebekah's son'." In other words, Jacob was equal to the task in any event (Cf. Megillah 13b: "'That he was her father's kinsman.' Was he indeed her father's brother? Was he not the son of her father's sister? He meant 'I am his brother in deceit'.")

From hereon in, the relationship between Jacob and Laban proceeds to develop on a formal contractual basis. In the first contract between the two Jacob drafted a detailed agreement with Laban in order not to be defrauded: "So he answered, 'I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel'" (29:18). According to Genesis Rabbah 7.14, "'For Rachel'-- and not Leah. 'For your daughter'-- so that you not bring a different woman called Rachel from the marketplace. 'Your younger one'-- so that you not change their names around." Laban agreed to the contract without any reservations, but when his fraudulent act came to light he "whitewashed (malbin) the case": "It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older" (29:26). Jacob's contract was valid indeed, but for the place Jacob came from; however it was not valid in Laban's place. As Radak comments: "Even though you asked for the younger daughter, which is reasonable since where you come from they are not strict about these matters, in our place such a thing is unthinkable, so I will give you both, but it is only proper for me to give you the older one first." Laban transformed his deceit to a "clearly elucidated (meluban) law" in terms of local legal practice. Jacob's precautions did not suffice and Laban's deceit had formal "cover", leaving Jacob with the lower hand.

In the second agreement between the two Jacob again set forth his conditions and Laban immediately agreed with enthusiasm: "And Laban said, 'Very well, let it be as you say'" (30:34). This time, however, the victor is Jacob, "his brother in deceit", and Laban, vanquished on his own turf, becomes irate: "Jacob also saw that Laban's manner toward him was not as it had been in the past" (31:2). Thus the moment of fateful confrontation was at hand. Providence was on Jacob's side: "But the G-d of my father has been with me" (v. 5). Laban, aspiring for revenge, was trapped and had to admit: "I have it in my power to do you harm; but the G-d of your father said to me last night, 'Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad'" (31:29). Note, incidentally, that in Parashat Balak, Balaam found himself in a similar trap, wishing to curse Israel but prevented from doing so by G-d's command: "You must not curse that people, for they are blessed" (Num. 22:12). Indeed, the midrash draws an interesting connection between the two, saying that Balaam was from the family of Kemuel, father of Aram (Midrash Lekah Tov, Numbers 24.5). Kemuel is known to be one of the sons of Abraham's brother Nahor (Gen. 22:21). "Why was he called Kemuel? Because he rose up (kam) against the people of the Lord (El)" (Genesis Rabbah 57.4). The commentary Be'ur ha-Re'm on Midrash Lekah Tov (loc. sit.) remarks: "Kemuel was one of the people who blessed Rebekah, 'O sister! May you grow into thousands of myriads,' and their blessing came to pass." The Zohar, following the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 105a, further strengthens the family connection between Laban and Balaam, saying: "Laban the Aramean ... was the father of Beor, and Beor was the father of Balaam" (Va-Yishlah). Both Laban and Balaam contended against Providence and suffered a crushing defeat. They both became the archetype of the threatening figure for the children of Israel throughout the generations.

Here we have seen an instruexample of midrashic "deep-structure", which draws out hidden connections between different figures in different generations, making tangible the mighty force of deliverance with has risen up for Israel since the days of "An Aramean wished to do away with my father" (Deut. 26:5 in the Midrashic understanding). Laban's "clarification (libun) of the law," really just a whitewash over the deeds of one who was "purely wicked," cannot stand up in the face of the law of Providence.