On the Parsha: Confronting Laban or Not?

The Jew in his normative mode is self-effacing and avoids bitter, litigious showdowns. This normative Jew is what Yaakov represents, but when he has to stand up to evil, well, that's something else.

Rabbi Avraham Gordimer,

Judaism Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer
Rabbi Avraham Gordimer

Lavan (Laban) did all that he could to keep Yaakov (Jacob) from leaving Haran to return to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), by deceptively employing Yaakov for two decades without an opportunity for severance, then by striking a (raw) deal with Yaakov to keep him on hand, and finally by chasing after Yaakov in hot pursuit to protest his departure.

Yet, despite Lavan’s decades of scheming to assure that Yaakov not leave, Lavan suddenly gives in when arguing with Yaakov at the place that was about to be called Gal-Eid, respecting Yaakov’s immediate departure for Eretz Yisrael and calling for a truce.

What happened here? Why, after two decades of keeping Yaakov with him in Haran, did Lavan suddenly accept Yaakov’s decision to return home and part ways? Why did Lavan not assert his authority over Yaakov as he did every previous time that the two did not see eye to eye?

If we look carefully at the prior exchanges between Yaakov and Lavan, we see a pattern in which Yaakov either gives in to Lavan or works around him. Yaakov worked seven years for Rachel but was deceived; when he protested, he conceded to Lavan’s coercion to work seven more years for her. Yaakov’s salary was constantly changed against his will, but he did not quit and continued to work despite this mistreatment.

Upon the final financial agreement between Yaakov and Lavan, Lavan manipulated the population of sheep and goats by removing those whose offspring would have gone to Yaakov according to the agreement, rigging the system to the great and unfair disadvantage of Yaakov – yet Yaakov did not complain and instead resorted to a plan to recoup that which he should have received. Then, when faced with Lavan’s wrath, Yaakov and his family secretly departed for Eretz Yisrael, running away without telling Lavan.

However, when Yaakov and Lavan met at Gal-Eid, Yaakov did something different: he boldly confronted Lavan and did not back down. This revealed to Lavan a whole new persona of Yaakov - a persona that could not be exploited or pushed down. Lavan was taken aback by Yaakov’s unexpected assertiveness, and he thereupon immediately acquiesced to Yaakov’s desire for independence and a return to his homeland. It is this assertiveness of Yaakov, frontally challenging Lavan, which made all the difference. This is why Lavan finally gave in to Yaakov.

Taking a step back, we need to ask why Yaakov did not confront Lavan at every previous stage in their turbulent relationship. Had Yaakov frontally challenged Lavan from the start, Yaakov would have been spared so much agony. Why did Yaakov not confront Lavan previously?

Yaakov, who represents the eternal persona of the Jew, avoided confrontation, because by definition, a Jew must be humble and unassuming, and not confrontational and brash, even when things would work out far better by staring down the other party and demanding what is owed. Of course,
Jews are willing to be insulted or to take a loss rather than insult and harm others.
one must be bold when it comes to defending the honor of Hashem and His Torah, and when one is at war or is defending against a mortal enemy, but these are the exceptions.

The Jew in his normative mode is self-effacing and avoids bitter, litigious showdowns. This normative Jew is what Yaakov represents, and had Yaakov’s character become one of confrontation rather than one of humility, he would have forfeited his identity.

The conclusion of Parshat Vayeitzei attests to Yaakov’s successful retention of his humble character upon departing from Lavan: “And Yaakov went on his way, and angels of God met him. And when Yaakov saw them, he said, ‘This is the encampment of God.’ And he called that place Machanyim.” (Bereshit 32:2-3) Rashi, invoking the interpretations of Midrash Bereshit Rabbah and Midrash Tanchuma, explains that the angels of Eretz Yisrael approached Yaakov to escort him back into Eretz Yisrael, as he left the escort of the angels of Chutz La-Aretz (outside of Eretz Yisrael).

This is symmetrical with the beginning of our parshah, where Rashi explains (ibid. 28:12, from Midrash Bereshit Rabbah) that the two groups of angels ascending and descending the ladder in Yaakov’s dream were, respectively, the angels of Eretz Yisrael who accompanied Yaakov from Eretz Yisrael to the border and the angels of Chutz La-Aretz who accompanied Yaakov once he passed the border upon exiting Eretz Yisrael and trekked toward Haran.

Just as Yaakov departed from Beit-El toward Haran in purity and humility of character, such was his return to the Holy Land. He had not changed. His same unassuming, modest persona endured, despite 20 years of immense challenge.

Chazal (our Sages) laud and identify humility as a principal and core Jewish trait. Jews are willing to be insulted or to take a loss rather than insult and harm others. The Torah praises such behavior. This is why Yaakov, the embodiment of the eternal Jew, had to humble himself before Lavan for 20 years, in preservation and perpetuation of his true Jewish character.