We bid you adieu

The ideology presented by Yaakov could not tolerate the intrusion of anything foreign. 

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg,

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

“You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone”

While comparing Lavan to Al Capone might be a stretch, the behavior exhibited by Lavan throughout the Torah portion of Vayeitze bears resemblance to the above quote. At times, Lavan acts in a seemingly magnanimous manner, but there if often a threatening vibe to his words. His portrayal as one of the paradigmatic ideological foes of the Jewish people render his actions even more deadly. At the end of the Torah portion, in one final last gasp, we see Lavan’s plans stifled, and he exits the stage for good.

A brief review of the preceding events are critical. Once Yaakov was able to increase his sheep population, he notes the change in Lavan’s face, implying that Lavan was not too happy with the results. After explaining the circumstances to his family, it is time for Yaakov to return home immediately. We are also told how Rachel steals her father’s idols. Lavan and his cohorts chase down Yaakov. Prior to confronting Yaakov, God warns him to be careful in dealing with Yaakov. Lavan confronts Yaakov, and asks him point blank why he stealthily escaped rather than allow Lavan the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. He also accuses Yaakov of stealing his idols. Yaakov defends his decision, and Lavan proceeds to search for his missing property. After failing to locate then, Yaakov confronts Lavan, taking umbrage in Lavan’s entire approach to this point. The culmination is as follows (Bereishit 31:42):

“Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac (pachad Yitzchak), been for me, you would now have sent me away empty handed. God has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands, and He reproved [you] last night."”

Lavan responds (ibid 43-44):

“And Lavan answered and said to Jacob, "The daughters are my daughters, and the sons are my sons, and the animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine. Now, what would I do to these daughters of mine today, or to their children, whom they have borne? So now, come, let us form a covenant, you and I, and may He be a witness between me and you”

What should have happened next is one or two verses discussing the covenant made between them. Instead, the Torah dedicates valuable real estate to many of the particulars concerning this coalition between Yaakov and Lavan. We are first told of the construction involved with a pile of rocks and a separate monument. Then we are told about the name of this pile of rocks (ibid 47):

“And Lavan called it Yegar Sahadutha, but Jacob called it Gal ed ”

The Torah then mentions throughout many verses how this pile of rocks and subsequent monument are a witness to the covenant. Lavan lays out the terms of the covenant, followed with (ibid 53):

“May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor judge between us, the god of their father." And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac.”
The episode ends with Yaakov consuming a hearty meal with friends.

Why does the Torah give us such a specific description of this covenant? Is it really that important for us to know all this information? Within the story, there are two verses that stand out. The first is Yaakov’s and Lavan’s different names offered for the rocks. What does this teach us? The second is the verse where Lavan references multiple deities, countered by Yaakov swearing by the pachad Yitzchak. What was Lavan referring to, and why does Yaakov choose this specific reference in response?

Rav Yosef Becho Shor elucidates the transition by Lavan from his original plan to the idea of a covenant. Lavan initially had a plan of confrontation with Yaakov. Once that was thwarted, he had no claim against Yaakov. Lavan then “flips the script”, accusing Yaakov of ill will in thinking Lavan would ever consider harming his own family. They were his flesh and blood! No, Yaakov, Lavan was coming in peace, merely seeking an alliance with his son-in-law. 

This explanation allows us an insight into the mindset of Lavan. As we know from our Sages (and as recited at every Seder on Pesach), Lavan sought to undermine the ideology of Judaism. He chased after Yaakov with every intention of ensuring the belief system Yaakov stood for ceased to exist. God’s intervention put a hold on his plan, and Lavan understood he could not continue down his original path. But he had a wonderful pretext – Yaakov was not the great man he claimed to be, as he stole from Lavan. He wanted to corrupt the image of Yaakov, creating a serious defect how people might see Yaakov after finding out about his heinous actions. Yet he was once again frustrated in his plan, never finding that which was stolen from him.

Lavan, though, was not ready to give up, and it is this persistence in his desire to destroy the ideology that is the centerpiece of the covenant. Lavan could no longer characterize Yaakov as the aggressor. Alas, there is one more trick left up his sleeve - form the union with Yaakov. What would he gain from it? In this relationship, Lavan would still have the means of influencing Yaakov and his family. Zayde Lavan would be a presence to his grandchildren, influencing in whatever manner he could the future Jewish nation. If he could not undermine them through outright destruction, he would accomplish the same objective through co-existence. Lavan understood that the ideology presented by Yaakov could not tolerate the intrusion of anything foreign. 

We see this idea in the two verses cited above. The presentation of the separate names given to the rocks was not simply a question in semantics. Lavan’s view of the covenant was completely different than Yaakov’s (we will get to Yaakov shortly). He saw the covenant as a means of accomplishing his original objectives, albeit in a craftier manner.

Lavan plays this card outright when he attempts to “join” Avraham’s God with the deity of Nachor. Rashi (and many others) point to this as the fusion of that which is sanctified with that which is profane. Lavan was proposing a merger of the two, believing that he would be able to pervert Yaakov’s creed. Yaakov responds with his oath based on pachad Yitzchak. There are many interpretations offered as to why he uses this terminology. While there is a deep idea connected to it, one can also see a slight attack of Lavan. Yaakov was not only demonstrating that there would be no room for any ideological intrusion. Yaakov was expressing a certain trait valued in his belief system, the idea of fearing God. The Rambam notes that fearing God involves a realistic view of one’s self in relation to God. A person should internalize the stark fact that he is mere dust when seeing himself vis a vie God. It is a concept of true humility, and Lavan’s actions were the opposite of this outlook. In a sense, it could be Yaakov was driving home a message through the reference to pachad Yitzchak: there is no room for compatibility.

Why does Yaakov agree to the covenant? We can surmise that Yaakov understood he needed to move forward with the next part of the Divine plan, the building of the nation. For this to take place, Yaakov had to feel a sense of security, and the visceral threat by Lavan needed to be eliminated. Yaakov saw the covenant as the opportunity necessary to ensure Lavan would not attempt to overtly destroy him. How would he handle Lavan’s more subversive attempts at influence? The portion ends with each going their separate ways, and Lavan disappears from the narrative for good. Yaakov understood that by separating, Lavan’s attempts at influence would be more of a fantasy then anything else. Thus, he signs off on the covenant, but for a completely different reason than Lavan.

Understanding the thinking of Lavan is critical when assessing our ideological foes. We tend to see many of our enemies in a purely militaristic light, violent aggressors seeking our destruction. In truth, our antagonists often are more like Lavan, craft and cunning, seeking ways to corrupt our ideology. Their externals are defined by niceties, but underneath lies a destructive motivation. We turn to Yaakov, and learn from him how we must parry these assaults and ensure the tenets of Judaism remain free of any desecration. 

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