"Jacob Talks With Laban" by Charles Foster, 1897
"Jacob Talks With Laban" by Charles Foster, 1897

Jacob has a lesson for us: Make sure we get the true story

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Genesis 28:10–32:3

There has been a flurry of discussion on the topic of antisemitism recently. For most Jews, we have come to accept the vilification of our people as part and parcel of our Jewish experience.

Interestingly enough, the roots of antisemitism can be traced back even to the lifetimes of our Patriarchs. This week’s Torah portion carries with it an example that certainly continues to resonate thousands of years later.

In Parashat Vayetzei, Jacob heads east to the family of his mother. He meets Rachel, falls in love and then is duped into marrying her sister, Leah. His father-in-law, Laban, is clearly a manipulative character, and there are multiple examples of his deceit in the parashah.

He first switches his daughters and then tries to trick Jacob into taking an inferior herd of sheep as payment for the many years of labor that he endured (Genesis 31:7-8). Clearly, the Torah casts Laban in an unfavorable light, but the Sages seem to take it one step further.

In the traditional Passover haggadah, the core text is drawn from the Book of Deuteronomy. It is from the script that a farmer is commanded to recite upon bringing the first of his fruits to the priests in Jerusalem.

The opening line of that passage states, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father.” (Deuteronomy 26:5)

The haggadah introduces the verse as follows: “Go and learn what Laban the Aramean wanted to do to our Father Jacob. Pharoah only decreed against the males, but Laban tried to uproot everything.” That seems like a pretty harsh indictment for someone who was crooked in his business dealings.

The Torah introduces Laban in the parashah a few weeks back.

Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, arrives in Charan with 10 camels’ worth of goods to entice a woman to marry Isaac. He finds Rebecca and places jewelry on her.

The Torah states, “Laban ran to the man, outside to the well. For upon seeing the nose ring and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and upon hearing his sister Rebecca’s words …” (Genesis 24:29-30)

It seems that the gold caught his eye even before he heard his sister’s story. Laban was motivated by his own material gain and acted hospitably because he thought he would benefit. When we meet Laban as a grown-up father, we see that his quest for wealth has only grown and he has become jealous of Jacob and his success. (Genesis 31:2)

Jacob flees with his family from Laban’s house because he is keenly aware that the jealousy of his personal success has created animosity with Laban and his family. In fact, he hears Laban’s sons accuse him of taking all that belonged to their father. (Genesis 31:1)

It takes a short conversation with Rachel and Leah to convince them that they need to leave their father’s house and head back to the Land of Canaan. When Laban finds out that they have left, he pursues them until Mount Gilead, and it is there that Laban is confronted directly by God in a dream.

“Beware lest you speak with Jacob either bad or good.” (Genesis 31:24)

Speaking badly with Jacob is obviously something that God would not want to see. But what does it mean not to speak to him “good”?

In all of our encounters with Laban, we see that he has a remarkable way of painting himself as innocent. He has an answer for everything. In fact, his name means “white” and it has been suggested (Rabbi David Fohrman from AlephBeta) that he is constantly trying to paint himself white.

God understands that even when Laban is speaking something that sounds positive, it really is just another attempt at manipulation.

He was in pursuit of Jacob and the family in order to stop them, and our Sages suggest, as we saw in the haggadah, that he was trying to destroy them completely.

God needed to intercede and Jacob himself calls Laban out on that point. (Genesis 31:42)

At the end of the encounter, Laban suggests that they should raise a monument as a symbol that they would not attack each other.

Was there ever any indication that Jacob posed any kind of threat to Laban? Unfortunately, Laban has to create his one narrative and vilify Jacob to justify his own behavior. This is a trend that has continued for the subsequent millennia.

What we can learn from Jacob is that it is important to make sure that the real story is heard. Jealousy can cause tremendous hatred and truth is often our only defense.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto. Rabbi Felsen is also on the board of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.