Thursday, 23 Nov 2017

Written by Gershon Silins

Our Torah reading for the week continues with the life of Jacob. In this week’s reading, Jacob serves his uncle Laban for seven years in order to marry Rachel. But he is deceived, and wakes up after the wedding night to discover that he has married Leah, not Rachel. Was he deceived by Leah? By Rachel? By Laban?  It is impossible for any one of them to have accomplished this single-handedly; all three would have to have been complicit in this deception for it to work. Why, we might ask, didn’t Jacob realize that it was Leah who was given to him after seven years of labour for Laban? What was Leah thinking that night, and how did she keep from revealing her identity? And why didn’t Rachel object to this plan to replace her? We tend to think of these stories as being about real people, not as the equivalent of a novel in today’s terms, and then wonder at the unlikelihood of certain aspects of them. But, rather like a novel, we don’t need to be persuaded of the historical truth of this story to understand something of what the ancient author might have wanted us to discover. And often, what we discover is embedded in the fabric of the tale, in the very grammar of the language used in it.

In chapter 29:26 and 27, Laban responds to Jacob’s rage at being fooled into marrying the wrong sister. Laban says, “it is not done in our place, to give the younger before the first-born. Fulfill the week of this one, and we will give you the other one also, for the labour with which you will serve me for another seven years.” But, as we learn from Nehama Leibowitz, where we would expect the text to say “I will give you,” it uses a more ambiguous verb: “v’nit’nah,” which can be interpreted both as “we will give” or “she shall be given.” Traditional sources variously interpret the word both ways. Targum Onkelos: “we shall give you;” Rashi: “a plural form;” Rashbam: “and this one shall be given to you.” Radak notes that the verb ‘v’nitnah’ could be the feminine passive or the first person plural active, the royal “we” as we might put it today. But Laban is no royal figure. And there is a grammatical indication that this can’t be a passive verb. Why would we want to interpret it as passive? It is, of course, because of the “we” in the active interpretation. Who is the “we?”

The commentator known as Ramban takes issue with Rashi for not explaining this “royal we.” His explanation is that Laban spoke with guile. How so? A wicked person seeks to avoid responsibility for his acts. Why did I do this? On my own I wouldn’t do such a thing, but that is just how things are done here; I was forced into doing what I did. Such a person splits himself in two, the good “I” on the one hand, and on the other, using “we” to disguise the “I,” who now becomes but a small player in the effort to maintain the values of his community.

There is another subtext in these verses: “It is not done in our place,” says Laban. Perhaps where you come from, he might be saying, it is permitted to use deception to replace the first born with the younger, as you yourself did to Esau, but we are better bred than that here. Laban can persuade himself (and perhaps Leah and Rachel as well) that Jacob himself used deception in order to get what he wanted, so it is permitted now to use guile against Jacob, in order to uphold our community’s values.

What originally appeared to be Laban’s inexcusable duplicity is now revealed to be that much more complex thing, a conflict of values where no one is completely just and righteous. And that should make us feel right at home in this ancient tale because, of course, that is our situation as well.

It isn’t often that we can clearly see what the right course of action is. We are seldom able to feel completely certain about what to do, or fully justified in what we have done. The story of Jacob and Laban is not so much an edifying morality tale as it is an unfolding drama, in which neither party can claim to be the righteous one. But in spite of the clash of values, as the story continues, there will be a reconciliation between Laban and Jacob, and later between Esau and Jacob. Making peace does not require complete agreement with those who have wronged us. It requires good will and a recognition that we may not always be completely right either. And that may be the lesson that this Torah portion can teach us today.

Gershon Silins LBC rabbinic student