Parshat Vayeitzi: Lavan’s Brother

“And Yaakov told Rachel that he was the brother of her father and that he was the son of Rivka. And she ran and told her father.” (Beresheit 29:12)

The Torah cannot be defined as merely a religion. The term religion is generally understood to refer to a system of worship. It is true that the Torah does include a system of divine service. However, this is only a part of the message to the Torah. Beyond providing a system of worship the Torah also deals with many other issues. It regulates conduct within the family. It includes a system of adjudication and social welfare. The Torah provides regulation and an orientation that extends to virtually every element of communal, national and personal life. This includes a sophisticated system of laws and ethics that govern commercial and business conduct. Our parasha includes the first extensive treatment of business relations. This is communicated through a comparative analysis of the business ethics of Yaakov and his father-in-law Lavan.

Yaakov travels to Haran. There he comes to a well and meets Rachel the daughter of Lavan. In our pasuk, Yaakov introduces himself to Rachel. He tells her that he is her father’s brother. Rashi is bothered by the obvious question. This was not an accurate description of his relationship to Lavan. Yaakov was not Lavan’s brother. He was Lavan’s nephew. Yaakov’s mother – Rivka – was Lavan’s sister.

Rashi offers two explanations. The simple interpretation is that Yaakov did not mean that he was Lavan’s brother in the literal sense. He meant that they were kin. Rashi points out that this is not the only instance in which the term brother is used to denote kinship.

However, Rashi offers another explanation. Yaakov provided two descriptions of himself. He said he was the brother of Lavan and the son of Rivka. Now, it would have sufficed for Yaakov to describe himself as Rivka’s son. Why did Yaakov also describe himself as the brother or relative of Lavan? Rashi responds that there was a message communicated in this description. Rivka was an honest, straightforward individual. In contrast, Lavan was a dishonest conniver. Yaakov intended to compare himself to both his mother and uncle and communicate that he was the equal of both. He was as honest as Rachel but also capable as being as devious as Lavan.[1]

It seems that Yaakov is saying that he is prepared to act dishonestly! If Lavan attempts to treat him unfairly, he will retaliate by treating Lavan in the same manner. Yaakov seems to be arguing that it is sometimes appropriate to be less that fair and honest. But as we shall see this was not Yaakov’s message.

“And Yaakov loved Rachel and he said, “I will work for you for seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.” (Beresheit 29:18)

Our pasuk tells us that Yaakov loved Rachel and wished to marry her. He asked her father for his approval of the marriage and offered to work for Lavan for seven years in exchange for marriage to Rachel. He described Rachel as “Rachel, your younger daughter.” Once again, Yaakov adopts a rather elaborate description when a more simple description would seem adequate. Lavan knew who Rachel was. Yaakov did not need to describe Rachel as Lavan’s younger daughter.

Rashi explains that Yaakov was fully aware of Lavan’s deviousness. He did not want to describe his chosen wife as “Rachel.” Lavan might substitute another girl with the same name. Also, Yaakov was not satisfied to describe his wife as “Rachel, your daughter.” Lavan might switch the names of his daughters and then substitute Leya – the newly named Rachel – for the real Rachel. In order to preclude either of these possibilities, Yaakov described his chosen very carefully as “Rachel, your younger daughter.” But Rashi explains that despite these precautions, Lavan succeeded in deceiving Yaakov and substituting Leya for Rachel.[2],[3]

This raises two questions. Yaakov claimed that he could be Lavan’s equal in deviousness. Apparently, Yaakov was very wrong! Why did Yaakov assume he could match Lavan and where did he make his mistake?

Let us begin with the first question. Why did Yaakov assume he could match Lavan? Yaakov believed that he was just as smart as Lavan. He knew that Lavan was very shrewd. But he assumed that his own wisdom was a match for Lavan’s shrewdness. In fact, Yaakov was correct. Yaakov described Rachel with such precision that he succeeded in precluding any legitimate substitution of Leya or any other woman for Rachel. It is true that Lavan substituted Leya for Rachel. But Lavan never claimed that he had fulfilled his bargain. He admitted to the substitution.

We can now understand Yaakov’s intention in describing himself as Lavan’s equal. He did not means that it is appropriate to be dishonest or unfair and that he could and would match Lavan in dishonesty. He meant that his wisdom was the match for Lavan’s shrewdness. He claimed that he would be able to foresee and preclude any attempt by Lavan to be devious with his own wisdom. HHeHeHeeSo, what was Yaakov’s mistake?

“And Lavan said, “This is not done in our place – to give the younger daughter before the elder daughter.” (Beresheit 29:26)

Yaakov discovers that Lavan has substituted Leya for Rachel. He confronts Lavan. Lavan does not deny the substitution. Instead, he explains that the substitution is justified. Leya is the elder daughter. It not appropriate to give the younger daughter in marriage before the elder daughter.

In this passage, the Torah tells us how Lavan succeeded in deceiving Yaakov. Yaakov realized that Lavan would use any legitimate means to substitute Leya or some other woman for Rachel. He assumed that by removing all legitimate opportunities for a substitution he would prevent the substitution. However, he did not realize that Lavan would rationalize an overt abrogation of their agreement. Through relying on the rationalization that Leya was the elder daughter, Lavan completely ignored the terms of his agreement with Yaakov and substituted Leya. In other words, because Yaakov underestimated Lavan’s deviousness he was deceived. He assumed that Lavan would rely on his shrewdness. But he did not expect an open breach of their agreement.

Of course, this raises another question. Yaakov recognized that Lavan was a cheat. He knew he was devious. Yet, he did not predict that Lavan would be able to rationalize and open breach of their agreement. Why was Yaakov unable to foresee the extent of Lavan’s dishonesty?

“And he came also to Rachel. And he loved Rachel more than Leya. And he worked with him another, additional seven years.” (Beresheit 29:30)

Lavan agrees to give Rachel to Yaakov as a wife. They make a new deal. In exchange for Rachel, Yaakov will work for Lavan for an additional seven years. Our pasuk tells us that Lavan gives Rachel to Yaakov and Yaakov fulfills his part of the bargain by serving Lavan the additional years.

The wording of the passage is problematic. The pasuk says that Yaakov worked for Lavan another, additional seven years. The phrase “another, additional” is a clear redundancy. It would have sufficed to use either term – another or an additional. But why does the Torah use both? Rashi explains that the intent is to equate this second seven years for the first seven years of labor that Yaakov provided. During the first seven years, Yaakov worked under the assumption that Lavan would respect their agreement and provide him with Rachel as a wife. However, the second seven years began after Lavan cheated Yaakov. This second set of seven years was a direct result of Lavan’s dishonesty.

Nonetheless, the service that Yaakov provided during this second seven years was undistinguishable for the service during the first set. During the first set, Yaakov was a dedicated and honest employee. He provided the same level of service during the second set.[4]

There is an important point here. Yaakov entered into this agreement as a result of Lavan’s dishonesty. Nonetheless once Yaakov made the agreement, he scrupulously observed its terms. Unlike Lavan, he did not resort to rationalization. He did not breach his agreement and reduce the quality of his service. Despite the disagreeable circumstances that motivated him to enter into this agreement, Yaakov did not rationalize cheating Lavan.

Now, we can explain Yaakov’s error at a deeper level. Yaakov was confident in his own wisdom. He correctly considered it the match for Lavan’s shrewdness. But his was not a master of human psychology. As a fundamentally honest person, he could not appreciate the ability of human beings to rationalize complete dishonesty. Lavan resorted to a form of behavior with which Yaakov could not identify. Because this behavior was so alien to him, he could not foresee or predict it. Yaakov could not rationalize dishonesty. Because he could not identify or relate to such open dishonesty, he could not foresee Lavan’s behavior. Because of his own goodness, he underestimated the human ability to rationalize open dishonesty.

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[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 29:12.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 29:18.

[3] It should be noted that there seems to be a contradiction in Rashi’s comments. Our Rashi explains that Lavan succeeded in deceiving Yaakov. However according to Rashi’s comments later in the parasha, this is not the case. According to these later comments, Yaakov and Rachel agreed to a signal that they would use in order to assure that the woman Yaakov married was indeed Rachel. This signal should have prevented Lavan from making a substitution. However, when Lavan made the substitution Rachel provided Leya with the signal, rather than expose her sister to embarrassment. According to these comments, Lavan did not succeed in out-maneuvering Yaakov. Instead, Rachel’s complicity led to Yaakov’s marriage to Leya. It is possible that this apparent contradiction can be resolved through assuming that Lavan suspected that Yaakov and Rachel had arranged some signal but depended on Rachel’s loyalty to Leya to undermine this precaution. However, this explanation is speculative.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 29:30.