Blaming Society

We should strive to emulate Abraham and Isaac rather than emulating Laban, who compartmentalized his values.

Commentary on Parashat Vayetzei, Genesis 28:10 - 32:3

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 Jacob by 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.

Blaming The System

By blaming the system–and each of us does this from time to time–a person splits himself in two: there is the personal “I,” who always does what is pleasant and right, and there is the “I” that is part of an abstract corpus (the Public, the State, the Community, the Organization, etc.). He compartmentalizes himself but demonstrates a shocking disregard for moral responsibility. Once begun, it is a hard habit to break, and the results can be terrifying: moral schizophrenia.

Judaism insists that each person be one fully integrated “I,” that he take full responsibility for his actions, and act according to what the Torah says is right.

The Talmud teaches (Kiddushin 42b, ff.) that “there is no agency for sinful acts.” This means that if I am appointed by another to commit a sin, I cannot excuse my actions by claiming “He made me do it.” I am responsible for my actions, not anyone else, not the society, not even another part of myself. At times, this might require standing in opposition to and resisting the nameless, faceless “Them.”

This is the central theme of the approaching holiday of Hanukkah. During the Second Temple period the world was greatly influenced by Greek culture and its outlook on life. The Jewish people also saw value in Greek civilization and philosophy. However, there came a point when fitting in with the Greek lifestyle would have meant abandoning Torah values.

The Greeks admired physical perfection, and thus condemned the observance of Brit Milah (circumcision) as mutilation. Shabbat and Kashrut became social barriers, and were compromised, then abandoned.  Worshipping the Greek gods became a step towards social acceptance. The primacy of man in Greek philosophy supplanted the primacy of God. Many Jews rationalized their adherence to Greek values by referring to the “spirit of the times.”  The entire world was falling in line. To be modern was to be Greek.

Against this background, it was extremely difficult for some Jews to insist on drawing the line between fitting in and selling out.  In effect, they were saying that they would not join the modern trend of dividing their identities between their Jewish selves and their citizen-of-the-world (that is, Greek) selves. They proclaimed, in the words of Mattityahu (Mattathias), “Whoever is for Hashem, to me!” There is only one “me,” the one who is defined by loyalty to Hashem.  Even when I participate in the secular world, I do so as a Jew.

Abraham vs. Laban

The Torah teaches otherwise. The first Patriarch, Abraham, is called Ivri, “the one on the other side.” Abraham courageously, and at great personal risk, did not fall in line with the masses. He opposed the idolatry of his environment, with all its immorality and cruelty.

The whole world was on one side of the ideological divide and Abraham was on the other. The world’s side, the side of multiple gods, was a world of divided selves. Abraham stood on the side of a world-view that insisted that, just as Hashem is One, man must strive for oneness. As Jews–both as individuals and as a nation–we are bidden to follow his example.

Only a moral lightweight like Laban can split himself into his public-self and his private-self, claiming that he is justified.  Ultimately, Laban, the Great Deceiver, succeeds only in deceiving himself. In time, Jacob sees Laban for what he is.

Jacob on the other hand, exemplifies Emet, the complete truth. He ventures into the world at large, even spending 20 years under Laban’s influence, but retains his unified self. The message he sends his brother Esav, with the message between the lines seen by Rashi, is “With Laban have I dwelled, and the 613 Mitzvot (commandments) have I kept.”  And when he finally arrives in Israel, he arrives Shalem–whole, undivided, one.

We are enjoined to reject the example of Laban, and to aspire to the examples of Abraham and Jacob. Each of us must acknowledge that we have one “I.” Our challenge as Jews is to align that “I” with the eternal values of the Torah.

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

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