In the midst of the Maggid, when seder participants have begun to tell the story of the Exodus, we find this unexpected diversion. Suddenly, the haggadah says, “You think your job tonight is to tell that familiar story about the struggle of the Hebrews to gain freedom from Pharaoh, but have you considered how much worse were the actions of Laban than those of Pharaoh?” No sooner do we absorb that frightening possibility than the haggadah slips back to “But he [Jacob] went down to Egypt.” What happened to Laban?
Laban enters the Maggid through a midrashic misreading of “arami oved avi.” Most commentators read these words as meaning “My father was a wandering Aramean”—a reference to Abraham. This midrash, however, reads the verb “oved” not as wandering, but as “intent to destroy.” Since Laban is known in Genesis as an Aramean, he becomes the subject of the phrase that the midrash reads to mean “Laban the Aramean sought to destroy my father.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks warns that this could not be the plain sense of the text, for “there is no clear evidence in the Torah that Laban did try to destroy Jacob.”1 Perhaps what the midrash is asking us to imagine is a subtle and more disturbing danger posed by Laban. What might that be?
We receive a hint from R. Menachem Mendl of Rimanov: “The name Laban means ‘white.’ Laban had a tendency to whitewash everything. On the outside it looked good. On the inside it was rotten.”2 We are in the realm of appearances and deception. What at first looks one way (“white”) ends up being entirely different (“rotten”).
When we look back to Genesis 31, we immediately notice how central deception is to Laban’s narrative. The Torah describes Jacob’s fleeing Laban’s house as “Jacob deceived Laban the Aramean in not telling him he was fleeing” (Genesis 31:20). In turn, when Laban chases after the fleeing Jacob, his first complaint focuses on being deceived.
Laban is the aggrieved father whose son-in-law secretly stole off in the middle of the night without giving him the chance to say goodbye. If only he had known that Jacob was leaving, he would have sent him off “with festive song, with timbrel and lyre” (Genesis 31: 27). But is this correct?
The man gives himself away. Laban is hardly the one to arrange a going-away party. Yet at the end of his opening speech, Laban throws an unexpected punch
Jacob is caught up short by this charge. He does not know what we readers know, that “Rachel stole the household gods (terafim) that were her father’s” (Genesis 31:19). So he boldly announces, “With whomever you find your gods, that person shall not live” (Genesis 31:32). Laban searches for the gods that Rachel has hidden, does not find them, and has to leave with no rescued property or gods to show for his trouble
At first appearance, this confrontation with Laban ends well for Jacob’s family, who then continue on their way back to the land. But between the lines something terrible has happened. As Robert Alter comments, this incident and Jacob’s response to Laban “foreshadow her [Rachel’s] premature death in childbirth” (Genesis 31:19)3. Rashi is more emphatic: “Because of his [Jacob’s] curse, Rachel died on the way.”4 What is it in the encounter with Laban that ends up with Rachel’s dying? How did Jacob and Rachel get caught in this trap?
These questions lead us back to Rachel’s actions. When Laban went to shear his sheep, Rachel stole her father’s “household idols (terafim)” (Genesis 31:19). No motive is assigned. No words are spoken. As soon as the act is done, the family secretly flees. We do not know why Rachel has done this or why she has not told anyone else. But we do know this: Rachel stole these idols that belonged to her father at the penultimate moment before fleeing her father’s house. Might this theft have been her way of holding on to her father and the gods of his household? Does Rachel identify with Laban to a greater extent than we may have previously noted?
There is one final scene with Rachel alone with her father. He is searching for his gods, and she has hidden them “in the camel cushion and sat on them,” claiming that “the way of women is upon me” (Genesis 31:34). Many have noted the comic association of these gods with her menstrual blood, but few have noted the intimacy of the scene. Rachel has set this up so her father visits her alone in her tent where she will be able to carry out a final deception on him. We realize how thoroughly Rachel is acting here as Laban’s daughter, besting him at his own game. What she fails to realize is that when you play by Laban’s rules, the costs can be horrific. How does Laban destroy our father Jacob? By having shaped his daughter Rachel in his image.
We are reminded of Laban’s world at this point in the seder to highlight the contrast between Laban and Pharaoh. For all his many faults, Pharaoh has one good trait. He lets you know exactly where he stands. Pharaoh openly takes his oppressive stance and never wavers. At the seder that might not seem like much of a virtue, but the midrash drops this hint about Laban to remind us that where deception rules, the results can “uproot the whole.”
1Jonathan Sacks, Haggadah (New York: Continuum, 2003), 24.
2Eliyahu Touger, The Chassidic Haggadah (New York: Moznaim Press, 1988), 54
3Robert Alter, Genesis (New York: Norton 1996), 171.
4See Rashi on Genesis 35:19