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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Hatred Without Reason

How can it say "Pharaoh decreed against only the males"? Does scripture not say, "The enemy said:? I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them" (Exodus 15:9)? Pharaoh wanted to destroy the whole! The Haggadah's intention is to say that in every generation there are those who stand against us and hate us without any reason. Consequently, the Haggadah does not recall the hatred of Esau, who had a reason to hate since Jacob took his blessing, and the pursuit by Pharaoh after Israel was in order to return them to Egypt; if they would not return, then he would make war against them. But Laban had no reason to hate Jacob who had done so much good for him, and similarly, Pharaoh's decree against the male children was without reason.
--Rabbi Judah Loew (Maharal) of Prague, (1525-1609) Sefer Gevurot Hashem, 54, published in the Ostrog Haggadah

Still Seeking Destruction

An Aramean destroys my father. The word oved is present tense and means destroys. Laban was always trying to destroy Jacob and even today, the forces that he represents are still seeking the destruction of Israel.
--R. Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966), Lithuanian rabbi and communal leader, from his posthumously published Haggadah commentary, Sefer HaShir vehaShevach

The Enemy Within

The Haggadah teaches us through Laban's example that Jews ought to fear the enemy within as much or even more than the enemy without. While non-Jewish persecutors, such as Pharaoh, have taken their toll of Jewish lives throughout history, even more Jews have been lost through the blandishments of the Labans of the world. Those presumably close to us--our "family"--have caused more danger to the Jewish community through the scourge of assimilation. Their kiss has been the kiss of death.
--Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, modern Orthodox rabbi and leader of the Jewish community of Efrat, The Passover Haggadah (KTAV, 1983)

Evil Inclination

I remember when I was a little child at the seder of [my grandfather], Rabbi Jacob Aryeh, I heard from his holy mouth concerning [the verse, "an Aramean would have destroyed my father"] that there are two kinds of yetzer hara (evil inclination). The first is like Esau; it kills through the temptation to sin, which causes a person to forfeit both this life and the life of the world to come. This is the common form, which affects average people.
There is, however, another form of the yetzer hara that is like Laban the Aramean, which convinces a person that a mitzvah (a commandment) is a sin or that a sin is a mitzvah. And this kind of yetzer hara can come against even a tzaddik (a righteous person), since it comes through trickery (rama'ut, a pun on Aramean). And this is what the Haggadah means by saying that Laban wanted to uproot the whole, since this kind of yetzer hara can affect everyone, including the righteous. This is what I heard from my grandfather, and his face was lit up like a flame and he appeared like an angel.
--Rabbi Jacob Aryeh ben Solomon Guterman of Radzymin (1792?1874), Polish Hassidic Tzaddik quoted by his grandson Aaron Menahem Mendel, Haggadah Commentary Tzemach Menahem

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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.