Topic: Laban the Aramean
This week’s parashah is Vayeitzei. It begins with Jacob’s vision of a ladder that reaches to the heavens; angels are ascending and descending and God is present with Jacob to protect him. The sidra goes on to describe Jacob’s very beautiful encounter with Rachel and his great love for her, but what follows is a lengthy narrative of pain and deception, dominated by the tragic machinations of Rachel’s father, Laban.
Laban’s world is clearly visible in the hurt of those who are close to him – his daughters, Rachel and Leah, and his son-in-law, Jacob.
In chapter 31, Jacob discusses his desire to leave Laban’s household with Rachel and Leah, who are now his wives. “And Rachel and Leah answered and said to him: ‘Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not accounted by him as strangers, for he has sold us and also quite devoured our price’” (31:14+15).
In Jacob’s last encounter with Laban (31:36-43), his anger with his father-in-law finally explodes: “And Jacob answered and said to Laban: ‘What is my trespass and what is my sin that you have come after me in hot pursuit …? These twenty years I have been with you, your ewes and she-goats have not cast their young and the rams of thy flocks I have not eaten. That which was torn of beasts … I have borne the loss of it … whether it was stolen by day or stolen by night. Thus I was: in the day the drought consumed me and the frost at night … These twenty years I have been in thy house … and you have changed my wages ten times.”
Laban sees life entirely in terms of the values of the market place. He deceived Jacob into marrying both his daughters and working very hard for the privilege. Rachel and Leah were treated as ‘strangers’ without concern or affection and sold or exchanged like pieces of merchandise. In Laban’s world, family, friendship, love and fidelity no longer exist and justice, moral commitment and elementary human sentiment have entirely disappeared. All that remain s are economic considerations and instrumental rationality.
The consequences of a Labanised world view are tragically played out in the on-going anguish of Jacob’s family life. Jacob’s experience of overwhelming love for Rachel was of little moment in a world where marriage was purely a matter of economic calculation. The psychological traumas inflicted on Rachel, Leah and, no doubt, Bilhah and Zilpah, the ‘handmaids’ and co-wives whose voices we never hear, as well as Jacob himself will be passed on to the next generation and still be visible centuries later.
As children are born to Jacob and his wives, their names bespeak their mothers’ anguish, as we find in 29:31-33: “And he (Jacob) came also to Rachel, whom he loved more than Leah and he worked for another seven years (as Rachel’s bride-price). And God saw that `Leah was unloved (literally ‘hated’) and he opened her womb, while Rachel was unable to conceive. And Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said: ‘God has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me.’”
Jacob’s relation with God in his vision at the beginning of the parashah is in striking contrast to the world as created by Laban. Relationship is about giving rather than taking and it is not about calculation or seeking advantage – God offers a great deal, but Jacob asks for very little. In the light of this there is no reason to take his vow as being unduly conditional. One traditional reading has it that Jacob is asking for God’s help in sustaining his religious life and commitment, so he will not be overwhelmed by the challenges he will face.
Jacob’s request for “bread and a garment to wear” (28:20) is echoed in Deuteronomy 10:10 where God is spoken of as loving strangers and providing for their basic needs of food and clothing. Simple gifts are quite adequate to express God’s love; if we are loved for ourselves, we have no need of wealth or elaborate possessions to bolster our sense of personal worth.
The market is destructive of loving relationships because it sees people only in terms of economic utility: Rachel and Leah do not experience parental love because their father does not think of them in familial terms. In the absence of loving relationships, there is insatiable need for material wealth, as it is the only source of self worth and status in the eyes of one’s peers, but such status is always superficial and rarely meets the more profound needs of the few who are fortunate enough to possess it. This is the tragic situation of a market driven society, and of Laban the Aramean, its biblical forbear.