Neviim Tovim/TheHaftarah Circle Gillian Gould Lazarus

Posts Tagged ‘Genesis

Laban is a tricksy character with a bad write up in most midrashic accounts, but he is neverthelss the grandfather of the children of Israel, no less than Isaac, their paternal grandfather.

Have you  ever been at a Passover seder where there are variant English translations in the haggadot being used? Some of them say, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father,’ but others say, ‘An Aramean tried to kill my father,’ translating a verse which has its source in the book of Deuteronomy. The homicidal Aramean refers to Laban, with the worst possible spin on his motives. The uncertainly of the translation is due to two possible meanings of the word spelled aleph bet dalet, to wander or to destroy.

Laban was a great nephew of Abraham but nevertheless midrash tends to portray him as crooked, venal and Machiavellian, with some justification from the biblical narrative.

In any case, Laban did not destroy Jacob, who was more than capable himself of turning a situation to his advantage. In our reading, Jacob has left Laban’s home in Aram and set off for the land of his birth, Canaan, with his wives, concubines and children and evidently the biblical equivalent of several removal vans. Laban comes after Jacob and upraids him for his stealthy getaway. He accuses Jacob of stealing his heart, which is not totally unreasonable, as Jacob is taking away his daughters and grandchildren. Jacob isn’t really to blame either, as Laban has previous form in the dirty tricks department.

In our sidra, Jacob and Laban come to an accommodation with each other, setting up a pile of stones as an agreed border. Laban concedes that his daughters are making a new life with their husband Jacob, but warns Jacob to treat them well. He says, ‘May the Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other.’

Years ago, my stepdaughter used to wear a pendant necklace with half of these words inscribed on it and her boyfriend wore a pendant with the other half. I thought that was beautiful and so it was, but I was a bit shocked later to find that the words were from Laban and that, as usual, he wasn’t necessarily the best role model. ‘The God of Abraham and the god of Nahor, the god of their father judge between us,’ he tells Jacob and, of course, the god of Abraham’s brother Nahor was no one we know. It was quite possibly some merchandise from their father Terach’s idol shop, which the youthful Abraham had vandalized, but that’s another midrash.

As there will be a family service on Shabbat, I’ve prepared a version suitable for children.

Children’s Version

When Jacob was a young man, living at home with his mum and dad and his twin brother Esau, he did something that made his brother very angry and upset. As their father Isaac was blind, Jacob was able to pretend to be Esau and get a special blessing which was supposed to go to the older brother. Although they were twins, Esau was born before Jacob and was entitled to the first born’s blessing. Things at home then became very awkward and Jacob decided to leave, to stay with relations he’d never met, up north in what would now be called Syria.

He fell in love with a girl called Rachel who was a distant cousin and wanted to marry her. The problem was Rachel’s father, who was a very tricky character. He was a sheep farmer and he told Jacob he could marry Rachel if he worked for Laban for seven years. It’s an awfully long time to be engaged, but Jacob agreed. You probably know what happened next. The bride’s face was hidden by a veil and, after the wedding, when she removed the veil, Jacob saw that he’d married Rachel’s older sister Leah. He did marry Rachel eventually, because a man could have more than one wife in those days, but he had to spend more years working for Laban. So Jacob lived there in Aram for years, and had a large number of children. Eventually, he decided to go home to the land of Canaan. He was hoping that Esau had forgiven him for the business with the blessing.

Knowing that his father-in-law Laban usually had some trick or other up his sleeve, Jacob took his wives and children and some sheep which belonged to him, and they all set out without saying a word to Laban, who came after them as soon as he twigged what was going on.

Angry words were exchanged but, surprisingly enough, they came to an agreement. They made a sort of border of stones and agreed not to cross into each other’s lands. Laban was sorry that his grandchildren would be far away but he understood that they wanted to be with Jacob, their dad. He said to Jacob, ‘Make sure you treat Leah and Rachel well. Don’t make them unhappy. God will be watching both of us.’

Jacob realized that this was a good outcome. They even sat down and had a meal together by the border of stones; then they went on their way, Laban north to Aram and Jacob with his family, south to Canaan. Jacob was quite excited about returning to his homeland and didn’t even look back, but Laban did look back, to watch his daughters and grandchildren until they were out of sight.

 

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