Parashat Vayetze: Delusions that lead to evil

This week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, brings together two people whose lifestyles were almost completely opposite of each other’s – Jacob and Laban.

 Hendrick ter Brugghen - Jacob Reproaching Laban (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Hendrick ter Brugghen - Jacob Reproaching Laban
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This week’s Torah portion, Vayetze, brings together two people whose lifestyles were almost completely opposite of each other’s – Jacob and Laban.

Jacob, escaping his brother’s wrath, reaches Haran and meets his mother’s brother, Laban, and his two daughters, Leah and Rachel. Jacob loves Rachel and wants to marry her, but Laban obligates him to work for him for seven years first.

When the seven years are over, Jacob wants to marry Rachel, but Laban, under the cover of dark, tricks Jacob and has him marry Leah instead of Rachel.

Jacob wakes up in the morning to discover the deceit and is furious with Laban.

Laban responds by saying, “It is not done so in our place to give the younger one before the firstborn” (Genesis 29:26). He promises Jacob that he will be able to marry Rachel, but only after working for him for another seven years.

When those additional seven years ended, Laban asked his son-in-law Jacob to continue to work for him, this time for pay. But he repeatedly changed the employment agreement in a way that minimized Jacob’s profits and increased his own. After another six years, Jacob wanted to leave Laban and return to Canaan, and to do so, he had to escape with his wives and children.

We might have expected Jacob to do what Laban would have done, to take – without Laban’s knowledge – what he was owed or, at the very least, not to continue to be a devoted worker.

But when Laban chased and caught up with him, Jacob said: “Already 20 years have I been with you.... I have not brought home to you anything torn [by other animals]... from my hand you would demand it, what was stolen by day and what was stolen at night. I was [in the field] by day when the heat consumed me, and the frost at night, and my sleep wandered from my eyes” (Genesis 31:38-40).

For 20 years, he devotedly herded Laban’s cattle, taking full responsibility for any mishaps. If an animal killed a sheep or if one was stolen, Jacob would not even report it. Rather, he would pay for it out of his own pocket. He took care of Laban’s cattle in the heat of the day and the cold of the night.

On the other hand, Laban’s behavior is curious. As far as he was concerned, he behaved with flawless integrity. On the other hand, we see how terribly he treated his own family. What led him to behave in such a way that even he did not pay attention to his own behavior?

The answer to this is in the continuation of the story. After Jacob complained about the way he had been mistreated through the years, Laban responded in a very strange way: “The daughters are my daughters, and the sons are my sons, and the animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine” (Genesis 31: 43).

Now it’s easier for us to understand the depth of Laban’s issue. His outlook is fundamentally distorted. He lives in a state of complete delusion. As far as he is concerned, his children are tools to answer his needs, his grandchildren are his private property, and Jacob’s wealth – earned through hard work – belongs to him as well. With such a distorted perspective about property and people, it is no surprise that he deals with the people around him the way he does.

MANY OF us, without noticing, can develop a similar delusion. We might see the people who work for us as private property, our family members as tools for our needs. This perspective will inevitably lead to us to appropriate others’ property for ourselves, not treating those around us with fairness and integrity, and not seeing anything wrong with our own behavior.

In order to avoid adopting such an outlook, we must adopt Jacob’s perspective that sees everything in his life as a result of God’s grace. When we see the world in this way, it will be easier for us to distinguish between our property and others’, we will be able to treat our family properly, and we will be grateful for the Divine gift of being privileged to live alongside them.

Let us try to adopt Jacob’s words of prayer, which we will read next week: “I have become small from all the kindnesses and from all the truth that You have rendered Your servant” (Genesis 32:10).

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.