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Parashat Vayetzei, 5778

November 21, 2017


Jacob and Laban: The Struggle between Past and Future
A D’var Torah for Vayetzei
by Rabbi Bruce Alpert

People who join my Shabbat morning Torah study – particularly those who have never engaged in such study before – are often amazed to discover that they are free to form their own opinions about the Biblical text and the characters who inhabit it. Often, they use this new-found freedom to decide they don’t like our patriarch Jacob. His conditional acceptance of God at the beginning of this week’s parashah, along with his various deceptions and favoritisms, form their bill of particulars against the man.

Opposed to this position stand the rabbis and their view of Jacob’s antagonist. “Go and learn what Laban the Aramean did to our father Jacob,” declares the Passover Haggadah. In its telling, Laban stands a step below Pharaoh in the Jewish annals of infamy.

Strong opinions, then, exist on both sides of the conflict of the relationship between father-in-law and son-in-law at the center of Vayetzei. I have been on one side of such a relationship for thirty-one years. Now, with two daughters in committed relationships of their own, I am beginning to see things from the other side as well. And what I see from this vantage point is not a conflict between right and wrong, but an inevitable struggle of love and identity, of past and future.

The poignancy of this struggle is captured in the poetry of the words in which it is told that, “Jacob worked for Rachel for seven years, and they were, in his eyes, like but a few days because of his love for her.” Are there words that better capture the vigor, the infatuation, the single mindedness of youth?

Laban is Jacob’s antagonist, not because he makes him work for his wife, or even because he substitutes Leah for Rachel (after all, he gives him Rachel a week later). He stands in Jacob’s way, against Jacob’s ardor. Laban insists that responsibility and obligation must come first. This is a new lesson for Jacob, but one that marriage and fatherhood will soon drum into him.

Equally poignant, though, are Laban’s words at the end of the parashah. Robbed of his idols, standing at the outskirts of his native land, amidst the family he is about to lose, Laban offers a final summary of the world as he has always seen it and as he has fought to preserve it. “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flock is my flock, and all that you see is mine. Yet to these daughters, what can I do anymore, or to the children they have born?” Are there words that better capture the indignation and humiliation he must feel at that moment? Even had God not stepped in to stay Laban’s hand, the conflict with Jacob was always one he was going to lose, because the hearts of his daughters would inevitably seek the future over the past.

What makes this story so powerful is its universality. The bond a father feels toward his daughter may well be the ground of his identity, just as the passion a young man feels for his intended may well prove the beginning of his. The clash is inevitable, yet it offers the possibility of growth for each. For in the depth of the connection both men feel for the same woman, lies the possibility of a similarly deep connection between them. One of them has sacrificed so much for the sake of whom she might be, and the other has fallen in love with who she already is. I know this situation first hand. It has been one of the greatest blessings of my life. The tragedy in the story of Jacob and Laban is that this connection never forms between the two. It could not, for God had other plans.

But to villainize Laban for not wanting to let go of his daughters is, to my mind, a terrible calumny. For what, in the end, does he ask of Jacob more than to take care of them? And by the same token, to castigate Jacob for being self-centered and callow (or, for that matter, to justify his every action, as some rabbis do) is to deny him the privileges of youth. For where will he gain wisdom and learn to care for others, if not through his own family?

There are no bad guys in this story – only the inevitable clash of two men – one seeking to build a new family, the other to preserve one. The clash calls not for blame but understanding. For on Jacob’s shoulders will rest the responsibility of creating a people – comprised of individuals who will honor their relations to one another, and ultimately, their responsibilities to all the families of the world. And in learning how to accomplish this, Jacob had a good teacher in Laban.

Bruce Alpert is Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT, and is the Chair of AJR’s Board of Trustees