An Aramean Destroyed My Father

Commentaries on the Haggadah contrast the evil of Laban with Pharaoh and see Laban as a symbol for political, sociological, and psychological evil.

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Gleanings:

Deriving Intention

"An Aramean wanted to destroy my father." Since Laban did not actually succeed in doing evil to our father Jacob, we must derive his intentions from his words. He himself admitted, "It is in my power to do harm to you" (Genesis 31:29), and this shows his evil intention. Laban wanted to root out the whole, to kill the mother and child when he says "The daughters are mine and their children are mine, and the flocks are mine, and all that you see is mine" (Genesis 31:43), that is, they should be mine, if God had not prevented me.
--Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437-1508), Portuguese philosopher and scholar, from his commentary on the Haggadah, written in 1496

Destroying Jacob's Fatherhood

An Aramean wanted to destroy my fatherhood. When Laban said, "The daughters are mine and their children are mine, and the flocks are mine," he wanted them to still be his and be called by his name. In this, he wanted to destroy Jacob's fatherhood, that is, his title of "father." In truth [Rachel and Leah] had said "Are we not as strangers to him (i.e., to our father, Laban)?" that is, Laban no longer had the title of "father" over them.
--Rav Tzadok haKohen of Lublin (1823-1900), Polish Hassidic Tzaddik, Sefer Dover Tzedek

Laban vs. Pharaoh

Why does the Haggadah consider Laban worse than Pharaoh? Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt because Joseph was already there. Joseph had been sold by his brothers into Egypt because his brothers had envied the way their father favored their youngest brother, who was born in Jacob's old age. Joseph was born in Jacob's old age because Rachel's marriage had been delayed. Rachel's marriage had been delayed because Laban tricked Jacob by giving him Leah rather than Rachel as a wife.
 
Had Jacob married Rachel first, Joseph would have been the firstborn and his brothers wouldn't have envied him and wouldn't have sold him into slavery. If he had not been sold into slavery, Jacob and his sons would not have gone down to Egypt. If they had not gone down to Egypt, their descendants would not have been enslaved under Pharaoh. We learn from all this that if it had not been for the act of deceit of Laban, there would not have been a Pharaoah as we know him.
--R. Azriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899), German rabbi and educator, from his haggadah commentary, Hukkat HaPesach

The First Exile of Israel (i.e., Jacob)

The key to the Haggadah's midrash on arami oved avi is the covenant with Abraham cited earlier in the Haggadah, "?your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them and they shall afflict them? Afterward they shall come out with great wealth?and the fourth generation shall come here again" (Genesis15:13-16). The language of the text--"stranger (gerut)," "serve (avdut)," and "afflict (inuy)"--applies not only to Israel, but to Jacob who lived in a strange land, served Laban, and was afflicted by him. Then Jacob left Laban's service with great wealth (and with Laban chasing after him), and his children (the fourth generation) returned to the land. Laban's persecution of Jacob confronts us with the image that this cycle of exile, persecution, and return predated our enslavement and redemption from Egypt and reinforces the Haggadah's message that redemption can and does recur in every generation.
-- Devora Steinmetz, "An Aramean in Every Generation" (unpublished paper), Assistant Professor of Talmud, Jewish Theological Seminary of America

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.