Laban - Ignoring the Messages
Vayetzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3 )
Efforts to amass riches through deceit does not increase prosperity.
One of the most pernicious foes that the Patriarchs faced takes a central role in this week's Torah portion; Laban, Jacob's uncle and later became his father in law. A superficial reading of the stories involving Laban shows that he was certainly not the paradigm of morality, however the Rabbis paint him in a far more negative light, based on a verse in Ki Tavo. The Torah outlines the declaration that a person would make when bringing the First Fruits to the Temple. It begins by saying, "An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather." (1)
The Midrash and the Hagaddah explain this to refer to Laban the Aramean; (2) according to these Rabbinic sources the Torah is revealing to us that Laban intended to destroy the Jewish people. The commentaries disagree as to the exact meaning of this verse. Some explain that it should be taken literally - Laban intended to wipe out Yaakov's family, his own descendants. Others say that his goal was to destroy them spiritually by causing them to assimilate into his own family and espouse their world view. It is pertinent to examine the events involving Laban and how he reacted to them - this can teach us vital lessons about how a person should not conduct himself.
Before Jacob came to Haran, it is apparent that Laban was not a particularly successful person: He seemed to have had a fairly small flock of animals(3) and was not blessed with sons. Once Jacob joined him, his prosperity rose exponentially, as we see from Jacob's own words to Laban after fourteen years of loyally working for his father in law. "But he [Jacob] said to him [Laban], 'You know how I served you and what your livestock were with me. For the little that you had before I came has expanded substantially as God has blessed you with my coming; and now..." (4)
Jacob was telling Laban that all his success was only due to Jacob's presence, and nothing to do with any improvement in Laban's business practices or a result of his deceitful methods. Furthermore the Midrash notes that Laban did have sons at a later date, and this also was because of Jacob's presence. Laban himself acknowledged the benefit he accrued from Jacob's presence and therefore entreated him to remain.(5)
It was self-evident that all of Laban's efforts at amassing riches through trickery and deceit did nothing to increase his prosperity. Rather, the obvious source of Laban's new affluence was the presence of the righteous Jacob. Accordingly, it would have made sense for Laban to at least partially change his ways and live a more moral lifestyle; Jacob had taught him that honesty and spiritual greatness, not dishonesty and smallness, were the cause of blessing.
However, it is plain that Laban did not change his ways one iota: Jacob agreed to remain with Laban through an agreement whereby Jacob could now earn and accrue his own flocks. And consonant with the past, Jacob succeeded greatly due to God's kindness. How did Laban react? Jacob tells us in his own words in his final confrontation with Laban; "This is my twenty years in this household: I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flocks; and you changed my wage a hundred times." (6) Jacob argued that Laban changed the details of their agreement no less than one hundred times!
Laban did not deny these strong accusations as it was obvious that they were true. On reflection his persistence in his dishonesty is quite remarkable - he tried dozens of different ways of deceiving Jacob and none of them succeeded at all. He could have contemplated on a practical level that perhaps his dishonest approach was not helping him at all. Furthermore, the success of his upright son in law should have taught him that the most effective way of succeeding was through honesty and righteousness. Yet he stubbornly refused to learn from Jacob.
The Meshech Chachma sees that Laban's inability to change is alluded to in the words of the Torah itself. After Jacob and Laban's final encounter they made a covenant not to harm each other, then the Torah tells: "And Laban got up in the morning, kissed his sons and daughters, blessed them, and went, and Laban returned to his place." (7) The final words of this sentence seem superfluous - it is obvious that Laban returned to his home.
The Meshech Chachma explains that the Torah is teaching us that Laban did not only return to his physical location, but also to his spiritual level - the same level that he had been on right form the moment that Yaakov came to live with him.(8) He lived with one of the greatest men of all time for twenty years and still failed to change in the slightest despite the fact that it is natural for a person to be positively effected by proximity to a great man. Thus the Torah is again demonstrating the lowliness of Laban - all his experiences with Yaakov taught him absolutely nothing.
And the Rabbis tell us that Laban did not only return to the same spiritual level that he was on before Jacob came, but he also returned to the same physical situation; during the night that he was away, thieves had come and taken all his belongings. All the wealth that he had accumulated during Jacob's tenure disappeared in an instant and he returned to the impoverished state that he was in on the day that Jacob came. This only stresses further the lesson that all of Laban's success was completely a result of Yaakov's righteousness and nothing to do with Laban's trickery.
The example of Laban reminds us of the futility of relying on 'natural' means of succeeding in life. According to the physical 'laws of nature' dishonesty and trickery should have brought Laban the wealth that he so desired. But according to the spiritual 'laws of nature' it was the righteousness and honesty of Jacob that bred success. A striking example of this idea is found in a Gemara in Bava Metsia.(9) The Gemara discusses a certain scenario where somebody has lent his friend an item and there is now disagreement as to the value of the item.
The Gemara concludes that the borrower must take an oath to validate his claim, whereas the lender is not required to swear. Why is the borrower required to swear whilst the lender is not? The Gemara answers that the borrower trusts the lender because he is wealthy, and that the cause of his wealth is surely the fact that he is honest and trustworthy, because if this was not the case, then "they would not have given him wealth from Heaven." (10)
It is obvious to the Gemara that honesty is the cause of wealth - if we were to ask the average person what is the cause of wealth, honesty would surely be one of the least likely answers he would suggest! According to the laws of nature, honesty is not the key to wealth, indeed, many people believe like Laban that dishonesty will provide them with money. The events of his life should have taught him that errors of his ways, but at least he provides us with a stark example of how not to succeed in life!
1. Devarim, 26:5.
2. Sifri, 301, Hagaddah Shel Pesach.
3. Ohr HaChaim, Bereshit, 29:9.
4. Bereishit, 30:29-30.
5. Bereishit, 30:27.
6. Bereishit, 31:41.
7. Bereishis, 31:54.
8. Meshech Chachma, Bereishis, 31:54.
9. Bava Metsia, 35a.
10. Rashi, ibid, d.h: loveh mekayem bemalveh.