THE ODD COUPLE
Rabbi Shlomo Freundlich
To say the least, the personal and business relationship between our patriarch Jacob and his father-in-law Laban can be viewed as the biblical version of the odd couple. Our father Jacob was the paragon of truth and was an individual immersed in spirituality.
To say the least, the personal and business relationship between our patriarch Jacob and his father-in-law Laban can be viewed as the biblical version of the odd couple. Our father Jacob was the paragon of truth and was an individual immersed in spirituality. Similar to the symbolism of the prophetic dream of the ladder described at the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Jacob indeed was an individual whose physical existence demonstrated how Man's thoughts can reach into the heavens to formulate the ideas needed to live an ennobled life. One can only imagine that one such as Jacob would find day-to-day life with the master con-artist, Laban, unbearable. Yet, somehow Jacob managed to live with the repeated chicanery and abuse that his father-in-law heaped on him. After working seven difficult years for Rachel, the wily Laban presents him with Leah. Yet, the Torah reports no trace of anger or outrage on the part of Jacob. Laban proceeds to exact another seven years of labor from Jacob in exchange for Rachel and still, nowhere, do we see that Jacob loses his cool. In fact, the biblical narrative (Genesis 31:7; see Rashi's commentary) records that Laban reneged on his agreements with Jacob 100 times. Somehow, Jacob absorbs this and maintains his extraordinary faithful service to his shady father-in-law.
After 20 years of this diet, Jacob knows that it is time to leave. He gathers his wives, children, and possessions. Realizing that there is no way Laban will grant him permission to leave, Jacob is forced to depart secretly. Unbeknownst to Jacob, Rachel - hoping to separate her father from his idolatrous ways - seizes his idols on her way out. Laban soon learns of Jacob's departure and gathers a hostile band of hoodlums to overtake Jacob. Laban quickly reaches Jacob, and in front of all assembled, lists his specific grievances. After unleashing his tirade, Laban accuses Jacob of stealing his idols. Jacob capitulates to Laban and allows him to search all of his belongings. When Laban comes up empty handed, the Torah reveals that Jacob, with no reservation, displayed anger at Laban (ibid. 31:36) and lets his frustration flow freely. Why now, after years of managing to swallow all of Laban's tactics with superhuman equanimity, does Jacob allow himself to assume a more aggressive posture with Laban?
The Be'er Yosef, a famous Jerusalem scholar of the past generation, offers an enlightening solution. Throughout Jacob's relationship with Laban, all of Laban's fraud was felt by Jacob in a very narrow context. Laban repeatedly exploits Jacob despite all of Jacob's good services. Jacob, a man of profound faith, refuses to be shaken or succumb to anger knowing that G-d steers the affairs of Man according to His Divine master plan. Jacob will not let a crook unravel the wonderful personal qualities he has developed through a life of Divine service. However, when Laban accuses Jacob in front of all the townspeople (see Pirkei DR'Eliezer Chapter 36) and publicly suggests that Jacob's piety is feigned and is a sorry facade for avarice and self interest, the issue now becomes one of chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d's name). Jacob can endure all of Laban's arrows as long as his paycheck alone is the target. However, when a way of life committed to Divine service and the values of Abraham and Isaac is publicly assailed as hollow and worthless, then Jacob reacts strongly.
It behooves us to carefully monitor our own spiritual radar system and identify what stirs our feelings. What do we feel are issues worth going to battle for? What are issues that really make a difference to us in our lives? Do issues relating to Hashem's glory trigger within us the same feelings as we may have towards those who step in front of us at the kiddush table on Shabbat morning and snatch away the last cookie on the platter? May Hashem grant us the wisdom to lead lives that sanctify His great name.
Rabbi Shlomo Freundlich has been an educator at the Yeshiva High School of Atlanta for 14 years.
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