Blaming Society

We should strive to emulate Abraham and Isaac, who integrated their senses of self with values of Torah, rather than emulating Lavan who compartmentalized his values and the values of his surrounding society.

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Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

Jacob had been involved in an act of deception, and now he becomes the victim of deception. After seven years of working for his uncle Laban, he wishes to marry Rachel, Laban's younger daughter.

And it was in the morning, that behold it was Leah. And [Jacob] said to Laban "What is this you have done to me?  Did I not work with you for Rachel? And why did you deceive me?" (Genesis 29:25). Laban, the champion deceiver, tricked Jacobby switching Rachel with Leah.

Laban's Excuses

Laban explains himself; after all, he is a recognized leader in the community. When he presents his excuses, he makes a not-so-veiled reference to Jacob’s own act of deception, in which he took the place of his older brother Esau in receiving their father Isaac’s blessing: “It is not done so in our place, to put the younger before the older.  Complete this one’s [Leah’s] week [of celebration] . . ." (Genesis 29:26-27)

The next word in Hebrew is critical to our understanding of Laban’s character:  “v’nitnah." Theoretically, there are two ways of translating this word.  Ibn Ezra (12th century Spanish commentator) interprets it passively: “she will be given” after the week of celebration for Leah, it will be acceptable for Rachel to marry Jacob.

Most commentaries, however, (including Rashi, Ramban (Nachmanides), and Onkelos (2nd century translator of the Bible into Aramaic)) translate this word as active and plural: “We will give” Rachel to you as wife.  But the plural form is hard to understand. Surely, Rachel is Laban’s daughter only!

The Ramban explains: “Laban’s words were spoken with cunning. He said to Jacob ‘It is not done so in our place, for the people of the place will not let me do so, for it would be a shameful act in their eyes. But you fulfill the week of this one and we--I and all the people of the place--will also give you this one, for we will all consent to the matter, and we will honor you and make a feast as we have done with the first one.”

Laban is saying “I am not to blame for what happened. But what can I do? I am, as you are, at the mercy of social convention.” Laban shifts the responsibility away from himself to others.

Anyone who wishes to have his own way at the expense of others and “get away with it” takes refuge in the “system,” claiming to be but a small cog in the machinery. He “passes the buck.” He argues “I was only following orders.” In this way he can perhaps assuage his own conscience, and he might even satisfy the public.

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Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.