Questions by Joel Cohen
The Duping of Jacob (Genesis 29:13-28)
By the time he met his uncle Laban, brother of Rebecca, Jacob had showed that he was no shrinking violet.
For instance, when his brother Esau had returned from the field famished, he demanded his brother’s birthright in return for a simple bowl of lentil soup. And when his mother told him to steal the blessing of the firstborn from his brother by masquerading as Esau to their blind — arguably senile – father, Isaac, Jacob’s concern was not about the evident wrongfulness of the conduct but, rather, that he would be caught and made the “mocker” – leading to his being cursed rather than blessed.
But his encounter with Laban showed something altogether different in his personality. Or did it? Introduced to his cousin Rachel by the shepherds he was promptly smitten by her; he kissed her and openly wept. She was obviously the love of his life. Also, her father, Laban, it seemed, sought to make his home Jacob’s home as well – and he asked Jacob what wages he expected. Loving Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter, he said he would work for Laban for seven years in return for her hand. Laban agreed. For Jacob the seven years seemed but a passing moment, because he loved her so.
But Laban tricked Jacob; when the wedding feast was over and nightime arrived for their initial marital encounter, Laban substituted Leah, the elder – not too pretty – sister for Rachel. Thunderstruck when the sun arose, Jacob demanded to know why Laban had tricked him. Laban’s weak retort: “Such is not done in our place, to give the younger before the elder.”
And so Jacob, simply accepted Laban’s word for it as to the local custom (which surprisingly he didn’t know about after living in the land for seven years), and dutifully worked another seven years to gain Rachel’s hand. And the story is generally understood to underscore the great love that Jacob had for Rachel that he was willing to endure Laban’s mistreatment of him. What?
• Is this a new Jacob – a man, a sophisticated man at that, by this time in his life flatly willing to accept the word of a scoundrel, that he would work another seven years for the woman whose hand he had already earned (and, indeed, accept the marriage to a woman ((Leah)) that he simply didn’t want)?
• Or, is this something else altogether? Lay aside the purported justifications that the rabbis give for why Jacob’s earlier conduct against his brother and father wasn’t wrongful at all, but indeed quite acceptable, even preferable — isn’t this a simply case of “the world is round,” or “what goes around . . . “?
• Simply put, maybe Jacob simply “had it coming.” Isn’t it possible that God, too, saw it that way, and “Divine Justice” sought to punish Jacob and used Laban as the instrumentality of His punishing hand?
Rabbi Adam Mintz
The parsha of Vayetze begins with an encounter between Jacob and the angels as he runs away from his brother Esav. The parsha concludes with another encounter between Jacob and angels as he returns to Israel once again to confront his brother. In between these two encounters Jacob builds a large and prosperous family; four wives, thirteen children and substantial wealth. The story of how this fugitive from his brother’s wrath was able to build this empire has become the model for Jewish continuity and success throughout the ages.
At first glance it seems surprising that Jacob, who had been so cunning in his ability to receive the blessing from Isaac, would be outsmarted by Laban. Was it really only Rebecca’s genius that allowed Jacob to receive the blessing? To make things even more frustrating for Jacob, when he complains to Laban about the fact that Leah has replaced Rachel, Laban responded “Such a thing is not done in our place, to give the younger before the older.” In this short verse, Laban seems to be poking fun at Jacob—you may have been able to trick your brother at home, but we are much smarter here.
However, the story of Jacob is not the story of the temporary setbacks that he suffers at the hands of his new father-in-law. The emphasis of this story is Jacob’s resilience and ability to adapt to new and difficult situations. Laban tricks Jacob and replaces Leah for Rachel but Jacob is not deterred and works additional time for the right to marry Rachel. When he is creating his family, the Torah hints at jealousy and competition between the wives. Yet, Jacob seems able to maneuver through the mine field of human emotions and create a family that at least at this point in the story returns as one unified unit to the Land of Israel. Finally, when Jacob feels that Laban is not paying him appropriately for his work in the field, Jacob invents a plan that miraculously provides him with what he deserves.
When we compare the stories of our three Patriarchs, we are struck that each of them is faced with significant challenges in creating their families and their lineage. Who can imagine choosing between two beloved sons as both Abraham and Isaac were forced to do? Yet, in both those cases, the problems were internal, the result of calculations and miscalculations made by each of the forefathers and their wives. In the case of Jacob, his problems are the result of a man whose name means “white” but who is anything but squeaky clean. Jacob is the first of the Patriarchs to deal with a hostile environment for which he was not to blame. It is one thing to correct your own mistakes but it is much more difficult to right the path when it is being controlled by someone who is interested only in his own well being and success. Jacob successfully outmaneuvers and outsmarts Laban. Yet, this process must be viewed over the entire parsha and not at each individual step of the way. Laban presented a different kind of challenge for Jacob than Esav did, and Jacob understood that the response needed to be more gradual and more deliberate.
The angel that met Jacob as he escaped from his brother guarded him during his difficult time in the house of Laban. It was the second angel who greeted the family of Jacob as he reentered the Land of Israel who would protect Jacob as he worked to create the foundations of the Jewish nation.
As Rabbi Mintz points out the journey of Jacobs life and the process by which he overcomes adversity is key. The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that Jacob’s 147 years can be divided into three general periods: The first 77 years of his life were spent in the Holy Land, secluded in “the tents of study” and sheltered from material life. Followed by 20 years in Charan in the employ of Lavan, during which Jacob married, fathered 12 of his 13 children, and amassed a fortune. Following a further period in the Holy Land, Jacob “descended” to Egypt, where he lived for the last 17 years of his life.
When discussing the bringing of the First Fruits in Deuteronomy 26:5 it says, “You should [hold the basket and] say out loud before G‑d, your G‑d: “[Lavan the] Aramean [wanted to] destroy my father [Jacob. And his sorrows did not stop there, because] he went down to Egypt and lived there in a small [family] group [of seventy souls]. But he became a great, powerful, and populous nation there.”
What is the connection between Jacob’s difficulties with Lavan and the
bringing of first-fruits?
The Torah Temima says “One brings first-fruits to thank G‑d for His kindness
in giving the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. ….”
Why does this declaration only mentions two events in the history of the Jewish people:
Lavan’s attempt to destroy Jacob, and the Egyptian exile.
If we are searching for miracles we could pick from a grab-bag of options, the manna in the desert or the splitting of the sea for example.
The Jewish people were only obligated to bring first-fruits after the Land of Israel had been divided among the Tribes . Consequently, this mitzvah is not a thanksgiving merely for acquiring the actual land, but for its complete settlement, since only at that point could one truly “rejoice with all the good” Therefore the only events mentioned in the declaration are times when G‑d helped the Jewish people while they were settled:
Those two times are the salvation of Jacob from Lavan, since Jacob lived with Lavan for
twenty years, and, the period in Egypt, which lasted 210 years, since these were both times when our ancestors benefited from acts of G‑d’s kindness during long-term settlements. And this resembles G‑d’s kindness in helping a person to be settled in his homeland, and bring first-fruits.
Beer-Sheba represented peace and tranquility. Charan stood for violence and immorality–it was the hub of evil, home of Lavan, the mobster. Yet,it was, in Charan, where Jacob raised his family, where the twelve tribes of Israel were born.
This is possibly the reason why it was possible that Lavan was able to trick Jacob, or rather that Jacob needed to be tricked by Lavan when he was removed from the shelter of the Yeshiva and forced to put all his theoretical knowledge into practice without the safe harbor of his parents home. Nevertheless as a result of this experience Jacob proves himself and flourishes. He continues to be the righteous Tzaddik he was. As it says in Rashi “Im lavan Garti Vtaryag miyzvos shmarti” (I lived with Lavan and nevertheless I kept all of G-ds’ commandments) Jacob was able to settle and establish himself, both physicaly and spiritually, he then receives the blessing in the Torah: “G-d will bless you in all your endeavors,” and we therefore use this as the example of solid, stable growth when giving the first fruits.
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