Commentary for Vayetzei

8 Nov

Of all of the stories of the life of Jacob, Genesis 31 receives very little attention. Everyone knows about Jacob lying to his father to acquire his birthright, his subsequent flight from his brother Esau, his famous dream of the ladder of angels, and about how Jacob worked for his uncle Lavan for seven years for the right to may Lavan’s daughter Rachel, only to be deceived at the weeding and married to Lavan’s other daughter, Leah, instead, and then having to work for another seven years to marry Rachel. The later internal strife in Jacob’s household as a result of his parental favoritism of Joseph has even been made into a musical. The story of Jacob and his family’s flight from and final confrontation with Lavan, however, remains largely outside of the modern Jewish conscience, despite the fact that it establishes two of the major struggles in Jewish history.
After twenty years of working for Lavan (seven to marry Leah, seven more to marry Rachel, and six years after that to provide for his new family), Jacob has finally gotten fed up with Lavan’s lies and deception. His relationship with Lavan has deteriorated, and Lavan’s sons are plotting against him, so Jacob, acting on advice from God, decides to take his family and leave. A few days later, when Lavan hears of this, he takes his army and chases after them, eventually overtaking and surrounding them.
Lavan first tries to guilt Jacob into coming back, then tries to intimidate him into doing so, and then flying into a rage, accusing Jacob of stealing his household idols from him. Jacob flatly denies the charge, declaring that “anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive (Gen 31:32).” With Jacob’s consent, Lavan begins rummaging through all of Jacob’s bags, as well as those of his family and their servants, but finds nothing.
After suffering this last indignity, Jacob vents his frustrations to Lavan, and Lavan backpedals, once again trying to assure Jacob that they are all one happy family. “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine. What can I do (to provide) for my daughters and these children that they have borne if this is the situation (that they are not living within my household) (Gen 31:43)? Jacob does not give in and they agree to go their separate ways.
This passage shares many common elements with the story of the Exodus, and Lavan himself is compared to Pharaoh in the Hagadah as one who tried to destroy the Jewish people. This attempt at destruction comes in the form of Lavan’s attempt to bring them back into his household, which the Rabbis interpret as a desire to convert them to idolaters, and thus this passage establishes the theme of the Jewish people being persecuted by others because of their religious beliefs. The theme of persecution fits nicely, but we run into a moral problem here because Lavan was actually right about the charge of theft.
Unbeknownst to Jacob, Rachel had, indeed, stolen her father’s household idols. Rachel’s motivation for doing this has confounded scholars for centuries, but there are tow major schools of thought: that she did it in an effort to prevent her father from worshipping idols, or that she still believed in the idols. Either way, she brought false gods into Jewish society, and the struggle with false Gods has been the other major challenge throughout Jewish history. If looked at not in the context of this story, but in the general context of the Jewish religion, Jacob’s response to Lavan’s accusation of theft in 31:32 can easily read as a general condemnation of idol worshippers. “Anyone with whom is found your (i.e. foreign) gods shall not survive.”
The section in the hagadah that mentions Lavan is found at the end of a brief history of the Jewish people, which starts “in the beginning our ancestors worshipped idols.” The actual quote that mentions Lavan is taken from the beginning of the ceremony of giving over the first fruit from Deut. 26. It starts off with “an Aramean tried to destroy my father,” goes on to briefly recount the story of the Exodus, and finally acknowledges that the fruit of the land, as well as the land itself, is also a gift from God. We will face the challenges of persecution and temptation to stray away from God, but if we stay true to God, he will deliver us from persecution just as he has done for our ancestors.

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