Vayetze: The truth about Lavan

Lavan was guided by his unquenchable thirst to be in control and used his remarkable abilities to manipulate others towards this end.

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg, | updated: 13:41

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

The Torah portion of Vayeitze begins with Yaakov on the run, heading to his uncle’s home and hoping to find the right spouse to lay the foundation for the future Jewish nation. He meets Rachel (along with accomplishing an incredible feat at the well), and she delivers the news of their encounter to her father, Lavan. What was Lavan’s reaction? (Bereishit 29:13)

“Now it came to pass when Laban heard the report of Jacob, his sister's son, that he ran towards him, and he embraced him, and he kissed him, and he brought him into his house. He told Laban all these happenings.”

The simple reading reveals a man overcome with emotion at the appearance of his nephew.

Lavan substantially expands this demonstration of care and concern (ibid 14):

“And Laban said to him, "Indeed, you are my bone and my flesh." And so he stayed with him a full month.”

Is he not a welcoming host?  Yet, after a month, the terms were about to change (ibid 15):

“And Laban said to Jacob, "Because you are my kinsman, should you work for me gratis? Tell me what your wages shall be."”

There is a clear shift from Yaakov being his “flesh” to “kinsman”. What has changed at this point?

Yaakov proceeds to offer to work for Lavan on condition he be able to marry Rachel.

Up until this point, it would appear impossible to describe Lavan as anything but a generous, loving uncle. While he is exposed later on as deceitful, he certainly appeared, for the moment, quite magnanimous.

Ramban notes the shift alluded to above, where Lavan wants Yaakov to work for him. He writes:

“It is possible to say that Lavan spoke cunningly”

Right from the outset, he is characterizing Lavan’s intentions in a most negative light.  

“At first he said to him that he was his ‘bone and his flesh’, and that he would show compassion to him as a man shows compassion to his own ‘flesh and blood’. But once he saw that Yaakov was staying on there [for more than a month] and being supported by Lavan’s [money], he said to him: ‘because you are my brother, should you work for me for free?’ For I know that from now on you will work for me for you are an ethical man and would not want to support yourself from other people’s money. And I [for my part] do not want the work you do to be for free, without a full wage’. So tell me what you seek for your wages, and I will give [it to you]. At this point, Yaakov understood Lavan’s intention…”

Where is the cunning nature of Lavan on display here? Yaakov had lived by him for a month. After a month, Lavan considered the possibility of Yaakov working for him. He appealed to a sense of ethics, as Yaakov would not want to keep living off of Lavan’s generosity. He insisted that Yaakov, should he work, be paid completely. Where exactly is the evil nature of Lavan present?

In order to have an understanding of Ramban’s overall insights, we must turn to the initial encounter, as conveyed in the first verse above. Rashi cites a well-known interpretation of this encounter, where Lavan seems obsessed with finding money on the person of Yaakov. His initial exuberance in seeing Yaakov was a hope Yaakov had arrived, like Avraham’s servant previously, with much wealth. Upon seeing Yaakov came with nothing, his “hugging” and “kissing” of Yaakov were in fact attempts to find some hidden money. Lavan comes up empty handed. Again, we see an apparent disconnect between the presentation of Lavan in the Torah and how he is portrayed by the Sages.

What was the trait that the Sages perceived and helped bring to light for us to understand?

Lavan was quite aware of the unique status of his sister’s family. Joining the Abrahamic dynasty was an opportunity unlike any other, as the family was the recipient of Divine guidance and protection. It is at this very point that Lavan misunderstands the ultimate objective of the new ideology of Judaism. Rather then see an opportunity for man to understand the proper path of life and insights concerning the Creator, Lavan saw a path to power unlike any other available. Lavan was guided by his unquenchable thirst to be in control and used his remarkable abilities to manipulate others towards this end.

When Lavan first meets Yaakov, he is described by the Sages as searching Yaakov for money. To Lavan, money was the all important vehicle to power. It is important to note that Lavan is not interested (to any great extent) in the use of money to fuel any type of hedonistic urge. Rather, Lavan understands that the accumulation of wealth would mean an unobstructed path to power. Yaakov had no visible wealth, but that did not stop Lavan. He understood that Yaakov was set apart from others due to his role in Judaism, and he sought to capitalize off of it by joining the family.

For Lavan to succeed, it was imperative he gain the upper hand on Yaakov. His supposed generosity of allowing Yaakov to stay for a month was in fact placing Yaakov in a position of dependence. Yet he framed his generosity as the way he would treat himself, creating an image of Yaakov as equal. Lavan undoubtedly knew of Yaakov’s interest in his daughter and sought to use that to his advantage. He also understood why Yaakov needed to stay with him. Yaakov would work for him, cementing a relationship of power over Yaakov.

There are times when a person’s true nature is masked, and Lavan’s machinations and manipulations ensured his quest for power was hidden.
Lavan was shrewd, as he could not allow Yaakov to divine his true intentions. Thus, Lavan, in a masterful display of manipulation, creates a completely rational justification for the transition to Yaakov’s new role. He creates one degree of separation, Yaakov now a kinsman. First, he appeals to an ethical ideal. Yaakov could not possibly live any longer taking Lavan’s money, as at some point he needed to step up and earn his keep. Lavan was not done, as he also demonstrates his business acumen. Having someone work for free could very well lead to inferior work being done; thus, Lavan assured him that smart business sense dictated Yaakov be paid.

Lavan was revealing what made him described as such an evil person. He was driven to power, and used the power of manipulation to gain any advantage he could. In truth, Lavan all along was putting in place a plan to gain the upper hand.

Ramban is addressing an important concern when it comes to evaluating the evil traits of our enemies. Often, we see the obvious and overt demonstrations of immorality as indicators of evil. It is not difficult to characterize a terrorist or murderer as evil. There are times when a person’s true nature is masked, and Lavan’s machinations and manipulations ensured his quest for power was hidden. He also had no reservations in using someone else to achieve his end.

While lacking many of the “common” features of a heinous individual, Lavan’s initial maneuverings at the expense of Yaakov reveal to us not just a threat, but the trait of evil.