Parashat Vayetze: Big deceit, small deceit

Integrity and honesty are the basis for a proper society.

December 8, 2016 11:52
3 minute read.
Art by Gustave Doré

Art by Gustave Doré. (photo credit: GUSTAVE DORÉ)


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When conveying the history of Am Yisrael (the People of Israel) and of the fathers of our nation, the Torah tends to give us not the entire story but rather specific parts of it from which we can learn significant lessons. For example, the Torah tells us Abraham’s life story beginning at the age of 75. Isaac’s life is conveyed briefly. The Torah chooses to tell us about two years of the many spent by Am Yisrael in the desert.

Another interesting characteristic of the way the Torah speaks to us is that frequently there are two opposing personalities shown in contrast to one another, one positive and one negative. Last week, we read about the clash between Jacob and Esau, and this week in Parashat Vayetze, the role of the negative character goes to Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law.

What is so negative about Laban’s character? What is the trait that characterizes him as someone whose behavior we should not emulate? That trait is deceitfulness. Laban is a person for whom deceit is the default option. We continuously encounter him cheating in some way. When Jacob asks him for permission to marry Rachel, Laban conditions his consent on Jacob working for him for seven years. Jacob agrees to this, and when the seven years pass, Laban tricks him and has him marry Leah instead of Rachel. When Jacob complains, Laban pretends to be innocent and says, “It is not done so in our place to give the younger one before the firstborn.” He ignores the issue of why for seven years he failed to mention to Jacob that this is the tradition of the place while leading him to believe he would be marrying Rachel. After this, he deceives Jacob when he keeps changing his wage conditions governing what Jacob should be earning for his work.

After 20 years of work – seven for Leah, seven more for Rachel, and six more for dubious wages – Jacob escapes with his wives and children and returns to the land of his ancestors, the Land of Canaan. Laban does not accept Jacob’s escape and chases after him. When they meet, Laban wonders with feigned innocence: “Why have you fled secretly, and concealed from me, and not told me? I would have sent you away with joy and with songs, and with drum and with harp” (Genesis 31:27).

It almost seems that from Laban’s perspective, they had an ideal relationship for 20 years and he just couldn’t comprehend why Jacob would escape.

As a historical personality, Laban is two-dimensional.

He is described with a focus on one central trait: deceitfulness. But people are not cardboard cutouts.

There are always other traits that make up personalities.

It stands to reason that Laban also had other traits that are not described in the Torah because they were not relevant to the story.

The moral of the story is that deceit and dishonesty are destructive traits. But it is not just Laban’s type of obsessive deceitfulness that is destructive. Even small deceits that stem from unpleasantness or the desire to embellish the picture are no less problematic.

Integrity and honesty are the basis for a proper society.

Laban represents the negative side of the story so that we, the readers, learn from him how not to behave; so we see from up close what the ugly face of lying looks like and learn our lesson.

One of the aims of the Torah is to teach us how to build a proper society. Judaism’s universal vision to create a humanity that exists in peace and solidarity begins the moment we deliberate over whether or not to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That is the crucial moment that determines whether we are partners in tikkun olam, repairing the world, or, God forbid, the opposite.

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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