Parashat Vayetze - Arami Oved Avi

  • Rav Yair Kahn

 

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This shiur is dedicated in memory of
Sam Selden z”l

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1. Yaakov and Lavan

 

In this week’s parasha, Yaakov, the grandson of Avraham, travels to the house of Lavan, the grandson of Nachor. Although Yaakov marries two of Lavan’s daughters and father’s his grandchildren, the relationship between them is strained and complex. Eventually, Yaakov runs away. After a short chase, Lavan catches up with Yaakov. Following a sharp exchange of words and mutual accusations, Yaakov and Lavan make a pact. Then they part ways.

 

On the one hand, this story can be analyzed from a local perspective, rooted in the specific personalities of those involved. Yaakov, who is quite naive, having spent his developmental years sheltered in a tent, is sent abroad to the house of his maternal uncle, Lavan, who is shrewd and deceitful. Although Yaakov’s stay in Padan Aram is meant to be temporary, Lavan exploits Yaakov’s naiveté and tricks him into staying much longer than originally planned. With the help of the Almighty, Yaakov eventually prevails. He raises a sizable family and amasses significant wealth. He feels it necessary to sneak away from Lavan in order to return to Canaan. Lavan catches up with Yaakov, but with the help of Hashem, Yaakov avoids what could have been a dangerous showdown and Lavan and Yaakov make an agreement and part ways.

 

On the other hand, there may also be a broader perspective, which begins with the relationship that existed between Avraham and Nachor and continues beyond Yaakov and Lavan. For instance, the Targum Yerushalmi identified Lavan with Bilaam (see Pseudo Yonatan, Bamidbar 22:5; also see Sanhedrin 105a, where Lavan is identified as Bila’am’s father). The basis for this association is found in Scripture. For example, both live in Aram Naharayim (see Bereishit 24:10, Devarim 23:5 and Bamidbar 23:7. In fact, Kemuel the son of Nachor – who the midrash identifies with Lavan – is given the title “father of Aram” in Bereishit 22:21). Both rely on nichush (random omens, see Bereishit 30:27 and Bamidbar 24:1). Moreover, the following verses are similar in both form and content:

And Elokim came to Lavan in a dream at night and said to him, “Be wary lest you speak with Yaakov from good to bad.” (Bereishit 31:24).

 

And Elokim came to Bila’am at night and said to him, If the people came to call for you arise and go with them, but that which I tell you, you must do.” (Bamidbar 22:20).

 

Ibn Ezra noted in his commentary that the personal identification should not be taken literally (Bereishit 36:32). If so, what were Chazal trying to suggest when they made this claim?

 

2. Avraham and Nachor

 

The Torah tells us very little regarding the relationship between Avraham and his brother Nachor. We know that the brothers parted ways even before Avram embarked on his journey to Canaan:

 

And Terach took Avram his son and Lot the son of Haran his grandson, and Sara his daughter in-law, the wife of Avram his son, and they left with them from Ur Kasdim to go the land of Canaan, and they came till Haran and settled there” (11:31).

 

(It was in Haran that Avram began to preach monotheism in public, and Chazal had a tradition that Avram was fifty-two at that time; see Avoda Zara 9a). When the Torah lists the family members that traveled towards Canaan, Nachor is curiously absent.

Moreover, there is a very revealing section found at the end of Parashat Vayera:

 

And it was following these events [the akeida] and it was told to Avraham saying, “Behold, Milka also gave birth to children for Nachor your brother. To Utz, the firstborn, and Buz his brother, and to Kemuel, the father of Aram. And to Kesed and to Hazo and to Pildash and to Yidlaf and to Betuel. And to Betuel, Rivka was born; these eight Milka gave birth for Nachor the brother of Avraham.” (22:20-23).

 

The primary purpose of these verses is to introduce Rivka in anticipation of Parashat Chayei Sara. However, let us reflect for a moment on their significance within the context of the relationship between Avraham and Nachor. A message arrives to inform Avraham of the birth of Nachor’s children and grandchildren. It appears that, despite their geographic proximity, there has been no or very minimal communication between the two brothers for over half a century. The Torah gives no explanation for the breakdown of communication and any suggestion is no more than speculation. So for anyone willing to be indulgent, let us begin.

 

Is it unreasonable to assume that there was a rupture in the relationship between Avraham and Nachor? Wouldn’t this explain why Nachor didn’t join the rest of the family on the journey to Haran? Wouldn’t it also account for a half century of silence? We can only guess at what caused this divide - it may have been based on personality issues, some form of sibling rivalry. Or perhaps it was an ideological rift.

 

After receiving a message from his brother after around fifty years, how did Avraham react? In a previous shiur (Parashat Chayei Sara), we noted that according to most commentators, Avraham sent his servant to Nachor’s family to find a suitable bride for Yitzchak. The Akeidat Yitzchak, on the other hand, maintained that Eliezer was sent to Aram, but not specifically to Nachor’s family. These two positions have a great impact upon the question of Avraham’s relationship with Nachor and his family. If Eliezer was directed to Nachor’s family, Avraham’s positive response to Nachor’s overture is unequivocal. If, however, Eliezer was not sent to Nachor, we find no response at all on Avraham’s part. It is only when Eliezer “chances” upon Rivka, the daughter of Betuel, that the Aram branch of the family is informed that Sara had given birth to a son.

 

In any event, the two families certainly come closer through the marriage of Yitzchak and Rivka. In fact, when Yaakov is sent in search of a bride, he is sent directly to the household of Betuel to take a wife from among the daughters of Lavan. It is noteworthy that at this point Lavan lives in Haran, the first stop of Avram’s journey, while at the time of Eliezer’s mission, Betuel and Lavan lived in the city of Nachor, in Aram Naharayim.

 

3. Titein Chessed Le-Avraham

 

As mentioned above, there is no explicit reference to the Avraham-Nachor rupture, so there is also no clear-cut indication as to what may have generated it. The first suggestion that comes to mind is that Nachor did not accept monotheism; he rejected Avraham’s teachings and remained an idolater. One of the startling things we notice regarding the household of Nachor, however, is that in sharp contrast to other gentiles, they refer to Hashem by His holy name, the Tetragrammaton (which we will denote as Hashem). Lavan tells Eliezer, “Come in, who is blessed by Hashem” (24:31). “And Lavan and Betuel responded and they said, ‘This is Hashem’s doing” (24:50). In our parasha, Lavan tells Yaakov, “I have observed the signs and Hashem blessed me for your sake” (30:27). When they make a pact, he says, "Hashem observes me and you when we are hidden from each other" (31:49). As a rule, the Torah does not quote non-Jews using the Tetragrammaton, with a notable exception being Bila’am, whom, as we have seen, is associated with Lavan. This seems to indicate that Nachor and his household adopted the message of monotheism preached by Avraham.

 

Based on a previous shiur (Parashat Lekh Lekha), we can suggest that although Nachor accepted monotheism, he did not accept chessed as a basic religious category. He believed in a God that created the world, not as an act of divine chessed, but as an act of power. One can debate whether Lavan believed in one God, but there is no room for argument regarding his ethical sensitivities. He took advantage of his own nephew. He cheated and exploited him. Similarly, Bila’am, who Chazal identified with Lavan, reached great religious heights, but he had the moral sensitivity of a mercenary. He was willing to cause the death and suffering to an innocent nation for fame and fortune.

 

Let us revisit the choice of Rivka as a bride for Yitzchak. Eliezer asked for a sign, and the one he chose would indicate that the girl had the moral qualities necessary. Her religious devotion was never questioned. Perhaps this was because the household of Nachor was wanting in the area of ethics. Although relying on omens is prohibited, according to many opinions this prohibition applies only when the signs are arbitrary (“if my bread falls, I will not embark on a trip”). However, if the sign is reasonable, it is permitted. In this way, many defend Eliezer’s actions. On the other hand, both Lavan and Bila’am were known soothsayers (Ibn Ezra claims that this common denominator led our Sages to identify the two with one another). Presumably, they relied even on random omens. Perhaps random signs reflect a belief in a deity who rules by power, who governs based on sovereign will. Didn’t Lavan and Betuel state, “This is Hashem’s doing; we cannot speak to you good or evil” (24:50)? Belief in a just and righteous God, on the other hand, would only accept signs indicative of the correct and moral choice.

 

4. And I Will Make from You a Great Nation

 

There may be an additional explanation for the estrangement between the house of Avraham and the house of Nachor. After Lavan and Yaakov make a pact, Lavan says, “The God of Avraham and the god of Nachor should judge between us, the god of their father” (31:53). Yaakov responds by taking an oath “by the fear of his father Yitzchak.” The contrast is sharp. Lavan combines Nachor together with Avraham. There is suggestion of distinction. Yaakov, on the other hand, singles out Yitzchak. Perhaps Nachor and his household did not accept the concept of a chosen nation. Nachor refused to join Avraham when he took the first steps of his journey that would ultimately lead him to Canaan to establish a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, separated from the nations of the world.

 

Similarly, one of the major themes of the Bila’am episode revolves around Israel as a chosen nation. Initially, Bila’am wants to curse Israel, but God doesn’t give him permission because they are a blessed nation. Nevertheless, when called upon a second time, he receives permission to go to Balak. However, instead of cursing Israel, he is forced by God to bless them. The first blessing imposed upon Bila’am emphasizes Israel as a unique nation, blessed and chosen by Hashem:

 

From Aram Balak brings me, the king of Moab from the mountains of the East: “Come, curse me Jacob, and come, execrate Israel.” How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom Hashem hath not execrated? For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him. Lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. (Bamidbar 23:7-9)

 

It is noteworthy, that according to the Ramban (Devarim 18:9), the prohibition against the use of omens applies only to the children of Israel, due their unique relationship with Hashem. Gentiles, on the other hand, are allowed to make use of omens.

 

5. Lavan Attempted to Uproot Everything

 

On Passover night we say:

 

Go forth and learn what Lavan the Aramean wanted to do to our father Yaakov. Pharaoh had issued a decree against male children only, but Lavan wanted to uproot everyone – as it is said, “The Aramean wished to destroy my father.” (Passover Haggada)

 

It is not clear when and how Lavan attempted to destroy us, and commentators have made various suggestions. Many point to the chase in which Lavan catches up with Yaakov. They note the verse, “I have the power to do you harm, but last night the God of your father told me saying, ‘Take care from speaking to Yaakov from good to bad’” (31:29). According to this interpretation, Lavan intended on wiping out Yaakov and his entire family. The difficulty with this interpretation is that Yaakov’s wives and children were Lavan’s daughters and grandchildren. In addition, Lavan was upset because he felt cheated out of his flock. Wouldn’t it have been sufficient to simply take back the flock?

 

I would like to suggest that Lavan never planned on killing Yaakov and his family. Lavan attempted to uproot everything by never allowing them to return to Canaan. When Lavan challenges Yaakov and asks why he ran away, Yaakov responds, “Because I said, ‘lest you steal your daughters from me.’” Yaakov’s fears are substantiated by Lavan’s revealing response: “The girls are my daughters, the boys are my sons, the sheep is my flock; all that you see belongs to me” (31:43). According to Lavan, Yaakov and his family, descendants of Nachor and Avraham, belonged in Padan Aram. Allowing them to leave Aram was tantamount to a retrospective legitimization of Avraham’s journey to Canaan. It was only because of the warning Lavan received in his dream that he agreed to allow Yaakov and his family to return to Canaan.

 

Yaakov and Lavan eventually make a treaty. Has there finally been reconciliation? Did Lavan finally accept the concept of a chosen nation? There is no explicit answer to these questions. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that from this point on, we find no contact between the house of Nachor and the house of Avraham - at least not until their paths once again cross, when Balak’s messengers travel to Aram to invite Bila’am to curse the children of Avraham.