December 8, 2005
Fear of Isaac
Parshat Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3)
Stories abound of natural tensions between sons-in-law and their fathers-in-law. One is about the man speaking with his future son-in-law, who was studying to be a rabbi.
"Tell me," he prodded, "how do you intend to support my daughter?"
"The Almighty will provide," answered the young scholar.
"And how do you plan to make sure that she'll have the same standard of living as she has in my home?" continued the father.
"The Almighty will provide."
"And how will you pay for all the children and the large home you will need for them?"
Again came the answer, "The Almighty will provide."
After the young man had left, the father commented to his wife, "Our son-in-law-to-be doesn't have a job. But at least he considers me the Almighty."
In the Passover haggadah, we read:
"Go and learn what Laban the Aramean attempted to do to our patriarch Jacob. Pharaoh only decreed against the males, but Laban sought to uproot everyone."
I'll grant you that Laban wasn't the nicest of fathers-in-law. He harshly worked Jacob to the bone for 20 years and tried to cheat him of any possession. But how can you compare Laban to Pharaoh, the Hitler of biblical times, and say that he was even worse than him? Where does the text even suggest that Laban was prepared to massacre Jacob's entire family, including his own daughters (Leah and Rachel) and grandchildren?
At one point in our parshah, there is a dramatic confrontation between Laban and Jacob. Laban accuses Jacob of stealing from him. After Laban searches through all the tents and finds nothing, Jacob argues (31:37): "You have searched all my possessions; what have you found of any of your household items? Place them down in front of your and my brethren so that they may prove who is right!"
But right after, Laban has the audacity to proclaim to Jacob (31:43): "The daughters are my daughters; the sons are my sons; the sheep are my sheep; everything you see is mine."
The only way Laban could have such an attitude was by believing that his son-in-law was inconsequential, and therefore entitled to nothing. Indeed, this was Laban's consistent trait, to constantly belittle and negate Jacob's importance and worth.
It started 20 years previously, when Jacob first offered to marry Laban's daughter. Laban's response was, (29:19): "Better that I should give her to you than to give her to another man." Instead of saying, "What a privilege it would be to have such a great tzadik for a son-in-law," Laban's attitude was, all right, at least you're no worse than any other guy on the street.
It must have taken a tremendous amount of emotional maturity and strength on Jacob's part to combat this constant belittlement. And this is precisely why the author of the haggadah emphasizes that although Pharaoh was a great threat to the Jews, he wasn't as bad as Laban.
Although Laban was never a physical threat to Jacob, his constant delegitimization and negation of Jacob's worth over a 20-year span threatened Jacob's ability to emerge as the patriarch of Israel. Had Jacob succumbed to Laban's psychological attacks, had he given in to feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy, the Jewish people would have ended then and there.
How did Jacob emerge whole?
When explaining to Laban how he survived all those years in his home, he tells him that it was the "fear of Isaac" (31:42) that kept him going. Jacob's father, Isaac, was scared of no man, only of his Creator. Jacob upheld his father's convictions to remind himself of his own worth, and refused to be intimidated by his father-in-law.
In our relationships with our loved ones, it's easy to make the other feel "less than," especially when we aren't fully assured of our own worth. As Mark Twain said, "Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."
The political realm is another arena where this lesson is valuable. One of the tactics people use to defeat a political opponent is not to debate the virtues of the other's arguments, but instead to completely delegitimize the individual. This may be an effective form of rhetoric, but it damages the opportunity for rational social discourse and ultimately does nothing to advance the truth.
If we could all be a little less like Laban and little more like Jacob, our world would be a much better place.
Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh in Hancock Park and director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union.