July 14, 2024
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The core text of the Haggadah is a paragraph that begins: “Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to Yaakov our father. For Pharaoh did not decree [death] except on the males, but Lavan sought to uproot the entirety.” “צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּשׁ לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ: שֶׁפַּרְעֹה לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים, וְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל”. How can the Haggadah suggest that Lavan was worse than Pharaoh? Yes, Lavan made Yaakov’s life miserable, but when did he seek to kill Yaakov’s entire family?

What sets Lavan apart from Pharaoh is his knowledge of Hashem. When we first meet Lavan, when Lavan first meets Avraham’s servant in Chayei Sara, Lavan refers to Hashem (Bereishit 24:31). Later, when Avraham’s servant finishes retelling events, Lavan joins his father in declaring: “The matter proceeded from Hashem; it is impossible to speak to you ill or good” (Bereishit 24:50). Then, of course, at the end of Vayetzei, Hashem speaks directly to Lavan, telling him not to speak to Yaakov “from good to ill” (Bereishit 31:24). Nonetheless, Lavan violates this instruction and addresses Yaakov while stating that Hashem instructed him to the contrary (Bereishit 31:29).

In contrast to Lavan, Pharaoh has no knowledge of Hashem. Indeed, when Moshe first appears before Pharaoh the latter asks, “Who is Hashem that I should heed His voice to send Israel? I do not know Hashem and further Israel I shall not dispatch” (Shemot 5:2). Pharaoh has not rejected Hashem but is ignorant of Hashem. Lavan knows Hashem and yet ignores Hashem. It is this indifference to Hashem that makes Lavan such a threat. Moreover, Lavan is family.

For all Pharaoh’s faults, he was never indifferent to Hashem. He was antagonistic but not indifferent. Pharaoh’s antagonism toward Hashem sent to Bnei Yisrael an unintended message that Hashem exists and is powerful. Lavan’s indifference to Hashem sent a message that Hashem was unimportant, an entity that existed but was inconsequential and could be ignored. Owing to the fact that he was family, his perverse behavior was particularly dangerous as it could influence Yaakov’s children. Pharaoh was an outsider, a stranger who could be a danger, and as such Bnei Yisrael would be on guard. Lavan, however, was grandpa. He had access and influence. Lavan’s goal was to draw Yaakov’s family away from Hashem and thereby “uproot the entirety.” “לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל”

The text does not say that Lavan wanted to kill or uproot Yaakov’s family. Rather, it refers to “הַכֹּל,” “the entirety.” The entirety is nothing less than Hashem—He who encompasses the entirety of the universe. Lavan wanted to uproot from human consciousness the knowledge of Hashem. Lavan wished his grandchildren to grow up in his orbit and see his indifference to Hashem. This also explains Yaakov’s response to Lavan’s comments about Yaakov’s departure.

Lavan states to Yaakov: “And you certainly needed to depart because you were sorely longing for your father’s house, [but] why did you steal my gods?” “וְעַתָּה֙ הָלֹ֣ךְ הָלַ֔כְתָּ כִּֽי־נִכְסֹ֥ף נִכְסַ֖פְתָּה לְבֵ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ לָ֥מָּה גָנַ֖בְתָּ אֶת־אֱלֹהָֽי”. To this Yaakov makes the odd response: “For I feared, for I said [in my heart that] you would steal your daughters from me.” “כִּ֣י יָרֵ֔אתִי כִּ֣י אָמַ֔רְתִּי פֶּן־תִּגְזֹ֥ל אֶת־בְּנוֹתֶ֖יךָ מֵעִמִּֽי” (Bereishit 31:30-31). Yaakov feared that continued contact with Lavan would result in Lavan’s daughters, that is to say Yaakov’s wives, being spiritually stolen from him and Hashem. As go the mothers, so will follow and go the children. Thus, we can see why Lavan is considered a greater threat than Pharaoh. Pharaoh wanted to deprive us of our lives while Lavan wanted to deprive us of our souls.

The threat of Lavan has not abated. In every generation there arise those who would destroy us. Unfortunately, at times they arise from within. This threat of assimilation, this desire to be part of the popular culture, seeps, in some circles, even into the Seder itself. In modern times the Seder has been transformed by some from teaching that we were freed from Egyptian servitude in order to serve Hashem into a vehicle to celebrate the cause de jure. These causes may not be unworthy, but they do not belong on the Seder plate or Seder table. So how is this to be combated? The Haggadah provides an answer. We must צֵא וּלְמַד in order to הִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ.


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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