parasha

Vayetzeh – 5777

Big Deceit, Small Deceit
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites

When conveying the history of Am Yisrael and of the fathers of our nation, the Torah tends not to give us the entire story, but rather specific parts of it from which anyone can learn significant lessons. For example, the Torah tells us Avraham Avinu’s life story beginning at the age of 75. Yitzchak’s life is conveyed briefly. The Torah chooses to tell us about two years of the many spent by Am Yisrael in the desert.

Another interesting characteristic of the way the Torah speaks to us is that frequently there are two opposing personalities shown in contrast to one another, one positive and one negative. Last week, we read about the clash between Yaakov and Esav, and this week in Parashat Vayetzeh, the role of the negative character goes to Lavan, Yaakov’s father-in-law.
What is so negative about Lavan’s character? What is the trait that characterizes him as someone whose behavior we should not emulate?
That trait is deceitfulness. Lavan is a person for whom deceit is the default option. We continuously encounter him cheating in some way. When Yaakov asks him to marry Rachel, Lavan conditions his consent on Yaakov working for him for seven years. Yaakov agrees to this, and when the seven years pass, Lavan tricks him and has him marry Leah instead of Rachel. When Yaakov complains, Lavan pretends to be innocent and says "It is not done so in our place to give the younger one before the firstborn”. He ignores the issue of why for seven years he failed to mention to Yaakov that this is the tradition of the place while leading him to believe he would be marrying Rachel. After this, he deceives Yaakov when he keeps changing his wage conditions which Yaakov should be earning for his work for Lavan.
After twenty years of work - seven for Leah, seven more for Rachel, and six more for dubious wages – Yaakov escapes with his wives and children and returns to the land of his ancestors, the Land of Canaan. Lavan does not accept Yaakov’s escape and chases after him. When they meet, Lavan wonders with feigned innocence:
Why have you fled secretly, and concealed from me, and not told me? I would have sent you away with joy and with songs, and with drum and with harp.
(Breishit 31, 27)
It almost seems that from Lavan’s perspective, they had an ideal relationship for twenty years and he just couldn’t comprehend why Yaakov would escape.
As a historical personality, Lavan is two-dimensional. He is described with a focus on one central trait: deceitfulness. But people are not cardboard cut-outs. There are always other traits that make up personalities. It stands to reason that Lavan also had other traits that are not described in the Torah because they were not relevant to the story.
The moral of the story is that deceit and dishonesty are destructive traits. But it is not just Lavan’s type of obsessive deceitfulness that is destructive. Even small deceits that stem from unpleasantness or the desire to embellish the picture are no less problematic.
Integrity and honesty are the basis for a proper society. Lavan represents the negative side of the story so that we, the readers, learn from him how not to behave; so we see from up close what the ugly face of lying looks like and learn our lesson.
One of the aims of the Torah is to teach us how to build a proper society. Judaism’s universal vision to create a humanity that exists in peace and solidarity begins the moment we deliberate over whether or not to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That is the crucial moment that determines whether we are partners in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, or, G-d forbid, the opposite.

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