June 23, 2024
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June 23, 2024
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If it is the middle of the month of Kislev, and if we are reading Parshat Vayeitzei, it is obvious that we need to discuss the holiday of Pesach. This is owing to an occurrence at the end of the parsha. Yaakov and his family are returning to Eretz Canaan with Lavan in pursuit. The night before Lavan catches them, Hashem appears to Lavan, instructing him not to speak to Yaakov either good or bad. The next day Lavan declares to Yaakov: “I have the power in my hands to do with you (עִמָּכֶ֖ם) evil, but the God of your father spoke to me, saying, ‘Guard yourself that you do not speak with Yakov good or bad.’” (Bereishit 31:29). The commentators note that the Hebrew word for “you,” “עִמָּכֶ֖ם” is in the plural. Lavan was not merely threatening Yakov, Lavan was threatening Yakov’s wives and children, his very own daughters and grandchildren.

It is based on the foregoing that the Haggadah states: “Go and learn what Lavan the Aramaean sought to do to Yaakov our father. For Pharaoh only decreed against the males, and Lavan sought to eradicate them all…” The Haggadah then quotes a portion of the confession people would make when bringing the first fruits of the Beit Hamikdash. This appears in Parshat Ki Tavo (Devarim 26:5). The quoted portion reads:

אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י וַיֵּ֣רֶד מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וַיָּ֥גָר שָׁ֖ם בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֑ט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֕ם לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב

This is a core passage of the Haggadah upon which we elaborate and discuss throughout the night of Pesach. The question has to be asked: Why, in retelling the Exodus from Egypt, are we painting Lavan as more despicable, more evil, than Pharaoh?

Often when the story of leaving Egypt is told, people recount God saying to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and tell him: ‘Let my people go!’” In fact, Hashem’s statement to Moses was: “Come to Pharaoh and say to him: ‘Thus says Hashem, the God of the Hebrews, dispatch my people that they might serve me’” (Shemot 9:1). The purpose of the Exodus was not that the Children of Israel should simply be free, but that they should be free to serve Hashem. The purpose of the Exodus is the recognition and service of Hashem.

The Midrash tells us that when Moshe appeared before Pharaoh, the latter had no knowledge of Hashem (Shemot Rabbah 5:14). Indeed, the Midrash says that Pharaoh even searched his listing of gods, seeking the name of this deity known as Hashem. Lavan was different. Lavan knew of Hashem.

Pharaoh might be excused for not knowing of Hashem, but not so Lavan. Hashem spoke to Lavan. Moreover, Lavan even acknowledges that his prosperity was a blessing from Hashem for Yaakov’s sake (Bereishit 30:27). Indeed, decades before, in Parshat Chayei Sarah, when Eliezer finishes recounting how he met Rivka, both Lavan and his father state: “From Hashem this event came, we cannot speak to you good or bad” (Bereishit 24:50).

How ironic that when Lavan’s sister Rivka is to depart for the land of Canaan, Lavan declared he could not speak good or bad, but now when Rivka’s son is attempting to return to the land of Canaan, Lavan must be warned not to speak good or bad. Of course, Lavan failed to heed this divine injunction. Lavan did speak ill to Yaakov. Lavan could have simply said, “God told me not to say to you anything good or bad.” Yet, Lavan added, “I have within my hands the power to hurt you.” This is what makes Lavan worse than Pharaoh. Lavan knows of Hashem. Lavan has been spoken to by Hashem. Lavan has acknowledged Hashem and yet Lavan refuses to abide by Hashem’s instructions. This makes Lavan evil. Lavan knows Hashem and ignores Hashem. The knowledgeable Lavan is worse than ignorant Pharaoh and it is compounded because Lavan is family.

It is not coincidental that we encounter Lavan in the month of Kislev. During Kislev we celebrate the festival of Chanukah. It must never be overlooked that the oppressions and assaults against our religion that occurred in those days were in part the result of Jewish Hellenists, vile Quislings who sought to forsake Hashem’s Torah even before the Greeks decreed against Torah. Such internal threats began with Lavan but continue to this day. Fortunately, as it says in the Haggadah, even before we read of Lavan: “But the Holy One, Blessed be He, saved us from their hands.” May He always continue to do so and may we always be cognizant of this salvation.

William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelor of Arts in religion and a law degree from NYU and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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