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Parashat Hashavua Vayetze 2001 / 5762 - Lavan, First Borns, and the Tyranny of Rules

20.11.2001 by
In this week's parsha we get to know one of my favorite bad guys in the whole Bible - Yaakov's father-in-law, Lavan. Yaakov escapes from his brother Esav, who wants to kill him for stealing the blessing of their father, Yizchak. Yaakov flees Israel, and goes to the original home of his mother Rivkah and grandfather Abraham - Charan. In addition to escaping from Esav, he also wants to find a wife from among his kinfolk there. He meets and falls in love with his cousin Rachel, whose father, Lavan, agrees to the marriage on condition that Yaakov work for him as a shepherd for seven years. After the seven years are up, Lavan substitutes Rachel's older sister, Leah, as the bride, tricking Yaakov into marrying her. When accused by Yaakov of deceit, Lavan answers - "This is not the way it is done in our place, to give the younger before the older. Wait these seven days, and I will give you the other one too, for another seven year's work." Yaakov agrees, marries Rachel seven days later, and then works another seven years for Lavan. The Rabbis identify the seven days between the two marriages as a period of celebration of the first marriage, to Leah, and use this as a source for the ancient, and still-practiced custom of celebrating such a seven-day period of festive meals after a wedding. It is hardly necessary to point out the obvious irony in the way that Yaakov, who has just usurped Esav's rights as the first born, is tricked by Lavan's playing the "Leah is the first born, she has to get married first" card. The fact that Lavan, who is seen by the Jewish tradition as an arch-villain, is the champion of first born rights, whereas Yaakov is an anti-first born agitator, is something we should think about. If the institution of first born seems to be so problematic, and causes so many problems, why does the Torah mandate special treatment to the eldest? In fact, when one looks carefully at the fate of first-borns in the Torah, one notices that the Book of Bereshit, and to a degree Shemot as well, can be read as a polemic AGAINST the institution of first-born. Think about it: Abraham is told by God (and his wife, Sarah) to reject his first born son Ishmael in favor of his younger brother, Yizchak. Yizchak's son Yaakov tricks and steals his way to Esav's rights. Yaakov's first born, Rueben, is totally overlooked, with the fourth born Yehuda and the 10th born Joseph apparently receiving the gifts that should go to him. Aaron the first born is skipped over for Moses. The firstborn sons of all of Israel, who are meant to serve in the Temple, are supplanted in this role by the tribe of Levi, after the sin of the Golden Calf. The tendency is too obvious to be a coincidence. The Bible is clearly telling us that, although there is something to this first born business, we really are interested in subverting it, and putting in its place a meritocracy: it is the best, most deserving son, who is, again and again, the one who receives the extra blessing, the spiritual and material inheritance, the mantle of leadership, whether he is the first born or not. Now, after having clarified the Torah's attitude towards the institution of the first born, let's take a look at what happens between Yaakov, the latest subverter of first born-ness, and Lavan, the putative defender of first born rights. After being dealt with in a sneaky fashion by Lavan in terms of his salary, Yaakov finally decides to take his wives and children back to Israel. At that point, Lavan does something which has been viewed very severely by Jewish tradition. Three days after Yaakov leaves Charan, Lavan finds out that he has sneaked away and, in a scenario which foreshadows Pharaoh's chasing the Israelites after they left Egypt, takes his kinsmen with him and follows Yaakov, catching up with him at Mt. Gilead. There then follows one of the funniest monologues in the Bible. You can imagine Lavan here in a number of ways; choose an actor who is really good at being smarmy and duplicitous, with really over the top oratorical flourishes. Maybe Zero Mostel, or Orson Wells, or in a somewhat lighter vein, Jim Carrie. Lavan says to Yaakov " What have you done? You've stolen my heart, taking my daughters like captives, by the sword! Why did you sneak away, and flee, deceiving me, not telling me? I would have sent you off joyously, with songs, with the tambourine, and with the lyre." My late grandfather, of blessed memory, used to laugh and laugh when he read these verses, imagining Lavan's stirring delivery of this phony rhetoric, the terrific imaginary choir, tambourines, and lyres that he conjures up. However, the Rabbis did not see this as a laughing matter. In fact, in the Passover Hagadah, the retelling of this story is one of the most dramatic moments of the entire evening. "Not only one arose to destroy us" the Hagadah tells us, "but in every generation they stand against us to destroy us, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from them. Look and see: What did Lavan the Aramean want to do to our father Yaakov? For Pharaoh only decreed against the males [the boy infants whom he ordered to be thrown into the Nile], but Lavan wanted to destroy everyone, as it is written [Deuteronomy; 26, 5] 'an Aramean destroyed my father'" The Hagadah understands the verse in Deuteronomy as telling us that Lavan the Aramean would have killed Yaakov and his entire family, had not God intervened to prevent him from doing so, such was his anger at Yaakov's leaving without his permission (and with a good deal of livestock which Lavan greedily viewed as his own). So, what do we know about Lavan? It seems to me that two basic traits emerge. One - he presents himself as a stickler for the rules: The oldest must be married before the youngest. We must celebrate for the requisite seven-day period after the marriage. He relates to the world through the rules and ceremonies which are mandated by his society, blind to the real needs and desires of those around him. Secondly - he is willing to commit murder when crossed. Might there not be a connection between the two? Is it not the blind obedience to 'the way it is done in our place' which leads to a murderous hatred of those who would do things differently? And is not the Torah, by subverting one of society's most basic and ancient rules, the institution of favoring the first born, telling us that, unlike Lavan, who upholds that institution, we must find and respond to the inner truth of each situation, each interaction, each relationship in which we are involved, rather than being enslaved by the responses mandated by custom and practice? Lavan's ridiculous description of the ceremonial sendoff he would have given the departing Yaakov is so funny because it is so at odds with the emotional reality of the situation, as was his denial of Yaakov's and Rachel's love, and insistence that form and custom be followed by his marrying Leah first, and celebrate that unwanted marriage for seven days. It is no wonder that someone so out of touch with the inner lives and needs of the people around him ends up harboring a murderous hatred for them. And, briefly, to get back to the question about why the Torah gives the first born extra rights in the first place? Maybe to teach us that we need to balance the two somehow; the unbending, formalistic, external 'truth' with the more personal, more subjective interior 'truth', in order to get at the truth without quotation marks. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Shimon Felix

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