Parshas Vayetze spans the twenty years spent by Yaakov Aveinu – the quintessential ish tam, man of integrity – in the inhospitable company of his sinister uncle, Lavan, a master of manipulation, deceit and double talk. From his initial embrace of Yaakov, which, Rashi notes, is actually a search for concealed valuables, Lavan is bent on exploiting Yaakov for his own purposes. Barely a month had passed when Lavan beguiles Yaakov into tending his flock and agrees to offer the hand of his younger daughter, Rachel, in exchange for seven years of labor. But after the allotted time, Lavan surreptitiously substitutes his eldest daughter, Leah, for Rachel and justifies his chicanery by invoking local custom. In order to claim his rightful bride, Yaakov has no choice but to commit himself to an additional seven years of servitude.
During the final six years of Yaakov’s stay, Lavan’s deception becomes routine; he repeatedly reneges on his agreements. Yaakov’s fortunes nevertheless soar despite his uncle’s machinations, and an embittered Lavan comes to view himself as victim rather than aggressor. The full measure of Lavan’s hatred does not became apparent until the disappearance of his cherished terafim coupled with Yaakov’s clandestine departure. Infuriated, Lavan engages in hot pursuit, intent on destroying Yaakov’s entire family – Lavan’s own daughters and grandchildren. Bloodshed is averted only through divine intervention, a frightful warning issued to Lavan in the dread of night.
Despite unrelenting exploitation, Yaakov maintains his faith and equanimity. This is most evident in his impassioned response to Lavan’s tirade, in which Yaakov offers stirring testimony to twenty years of unwavering loyalty and meticulous honesty.
Yaakov’s defense is as dignified as his labor – firm, but devoid of bitterness. Without engaging in personal attacks on Lavan, he eloquently places blame for the conflict where it belongs. As the midrash insightfully comments, “Better the grievances of the Patriarchs than the humility of the offspring.” Notwithstanding his inspired appeal, Yaakov’s words made no discernable impression upon Lavan, whose callous response is, “All that you see is mine.” As the two part, the Torah notes that Lavan returns “to his place” – morally as well as geographically. For Lavan there is only stagnation. Yaakov, however, goes “on his way” – rising to new spiritual heights. Perhaps Yaakov’s greatest achievement from his years with Lavan was his ability to confront sheker with emes. This was to become Yaakov’s proud declaration to his brother Esau: “I managed to live with Lavan for twenty years, remaining faithful to the letter and spirit of the mitzvos, without succumbing to his evil ways.”
“Maaseh avos siman labanim” – the experiences of the Patriarchs provide inspiration to
their progeny. Yaakov’s moral triumph serves as a model for the Jew throughout
history. In our own time, the Israeli government Jewish leadership, as well as
individuals in their professional and personal relationships, are confronted by a sea of
sheker. While we may not change the Lavans of the world, our challenge is to engage
them in the spirit of “Yisrael Saba,” with firmness, integrity and dignity.
Rabbi Elchanan Adler
Congregation Ohav Zedek, Bayonne, NJ