As this morning’s Torah portion opens, Jacob has just left the land of Canaan. He is fleeing home after deceiving his father and stealing the blessing meant for his brother Esau. He has nothing with him. Following his mother Rebekah’s orders, he makes his way to her family in Haran.
Arriving with nothing but the shirt on his back, Jacob comes to town, stops at the local watering hole, and there meets his cousin Rachel. She brings him home, and Jacob is incorporated into the family.
Twenty years later, Jacob has built up his own family, marrying both Rachel and her sister Leah, fathering eleven sons and a daughter, and becoming extremely wealthy. The Torah portion ends where it started, at the border. This time, Jacob is returning home.
During the intervening years, Jacob gets his comeuppance. The deception that brings him there is returned many times over.
Simply put, Laban, Jacob’s uncle and soon to be father-in-law, is not a nice man. He is greedy and selfish; duplicitous and conniving – making him a suitable match for Jacob. They make a great pair: the perfect frenemies.
Throughout his time in Laban’s household, Jacob is subjected to lies and deception. On Jacob’s wedding night to Rachel, Laban sneaks his older daughter Leah into the dark tent, forcing Jacob to work an additional seven years for his beloved’s hand. He changes Jacob’s wages ten times. He makes a deal with Jacob to divide the flocks, and then steals all of the animals that should have gone to his son-in-law. Finally, he refuses to grant a dowry to his daughters, effectively disinheriting them.
The midrash imagines that even more is taking place between the lines. Before he even meets his uncle, Jacob is already anticipating the kind of man to expect.
When Jacob sees his cousin Rachel, the first thing he does is to roll the large stone covering off the mouth of the well. Next, he waters her flock. He kisses her. Then he cries. Finally, he introduces himself. (Seems kind of out of order, doesn’t it?) Listen to how the Torah describes the introduction:
Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s brother, that he was Rebekah’s son… (29:12)
Rashi, citing the Talmud (Bava Batra 123a), notes that Jacob is not, in fact, Laban’s brother, but rather his nephew. Furthermore, why does Jacob repeat himself by emphasizing both his connection to Laban and to Rebekah? It seems redundant.
Beneath the surface, Jacob is really asking Rachel about his uncle’s character. He wants to know what to expect when she brings him home. If Laban is a deceiver, Jacob says, know that I am his brother in deception; his equal. But if he is an upstanding individual, know that I am the son of the honorable Rebekah.
Jacob is prepared to play either role in his uncle’s household. That is classic Jacob. Always calculating, always thinking ahead.
Tragically – although it makes for a better story – Laban is the former.
The midrash continues, noting that Laban runs to Jacob, embraces him and then kisses him. Why is he so eager? He must be up to something.
Laban remembers what happened many years earlier, when the servant of Abraham showed up looking for a wife for Isaac. Laban was much younger then. He recalls the servant arriving with ten camels, all loaded with valuable gifts. The servant left with Laban’s sister, Rebekah.
Now, decades later, when he hears about the arrival of Rebekah’s son, Laban imagines to himself, ‘if a servant from that household brings so much wealth with him, how much more will a member of the family bring!’ We can almost hear him salivating. In his greed, Laban is so excited that he runs.
But he does not see any camels, nor luggage. Where are the precious gifts? He gives Jacob a big hug. Laban’s hands start to wander, as he pats him down, frisking him in his search for gems that might be hidden in Jacob’s clothing. He finds nothing.
In his final, desperate effort, Laban kisses Jacob on the lips, imagining there might be jewels concealed inside his nephew’s mouth.
Disappointed, Laban concedes “you are truly my bone and flesh.” (29:14) Then the text tells us that Jacob stayed with Laban for one month’s time.
Rashi explains that, since there is no profit in it, Laban does not want to have to put Jacob up. But since he is blood, there is a familial obligation – an obligation that lasts exactly one month.
This explains why Laban raises the question of Jacob’s payment exactly one month after his arrival. Don’t be fooled. He is not actually being generous. He is trying to change Jacob’s status from freeloading nephew to employee.
This is the man who will control Jacob’s fate for the next twenty years. Remember, Jacob has been blessed by his father and by God. After meeting Laban, he has to be wondering about that blessing.
Despite his uncle’s duplicitousness, Jacob manages to do well, the result of a combination of Divine providence and his own wily nature. But there is a cost.
Jacob will never have peace. His household will be plagued with dishonesty and deception
Jacob’s wives, Rachel and Leah, struggle for position in the household. As the family leaves home – in secret in the middle of the night, keep in mind – Rachel steals her father’s household idols. She places them under her cushion, and when her father comes to search her tent, she lies, claiming that she is having her period and cannot get up. Her lie puts Jacob in the position of telling an unintentional lie as well. It also leads him to invoke a curse that would eventually lead to her demise.
In the next generation, the dishonesty will repeat among Jacob’s sons.
Jacob’s life illustrates the principle of midah k’neged midah – measure for measure. We reap what we sow. What goes around comes around. Or in the case of Laban and Jacob: it takes one to know one.
Does real life work this way? I would hope so. But in the inverse, as I would not want to wish evil on anyone. A person who makes the effort to conduct him or herself honestly and fairly will be treated honestly and fairly. One who treats others with compassion will be treated with compassion. Those who are available to a friend in need will not be abandoned in their time of need.
Pirkei Avot, the ancient collection of ethical teachings from the Mishnah, teaches Eizehu m’khubad? Ha-m’khabed et ha-b’riyot Who is honored? The one who honors every person. (4:1)