Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
Lavan makes his introduction in Parshas Chayei Sara, stepping into the limelight and assuming his role as the attempted destroyer of the Jewish people. In fact, in his first meeting with Eliezer, his eyes are immediately drawn to the wealth that Eliezer represents. Immediately, Lavan is presented to us as a superficial materialist who eventually evolves into a full-fledged rasha. And yet, even a rasha such as Lavan cannot be viewed as one-dimensional.
Lavan welcomes Eliezer into his home and we are told (Bereishis 24:32):
“So the man came to the house and unmuzzled (vayefatach) the camels, and he gave straw and fodder to the camels and water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him.”
Some of the commentators pick up on an apparent superfluity in this verse, namely the mentioning of the “unmuzzling” of the camels.
Rashi (ibid), in fact, is the commentator who actually translates “vayefatach” as referring to a muzzle:
“He loosened their muzzles, for he would shut their mouths so that they would not graze along the way in fields belonging to others.”
What is unclear at this juncture is who would actually be loosening their muzzles. However, there is a more powerful question here that needs to be asked. Why exactly is it important to note this behavior towards the camels? Why do we care?
Ramban offers a further elucidation of this verse (ibid):
“'So the man came to the house: Eliezer is the man who entered the house. And he ungirded the camels,' this refers to Lavan who acted ethically towards his guests, unharnesses their camels and gave them straw and fodder, and he also gave water to wash the feet of Eliezer and ‘the feet of the men that were with him. It must refer to Lavan for it would be unlikely that it was Eliezer who gave water to wash his own feet and those of his men…”
Ramban is stressing a point that seems fairly unimportant – Lavan was being hospitable. Is this significant? And how do we understand whatever significance exists in the context of the treatment of the camels?
“Now the purport of the expression, ‘and he ungirded the camels’, is that he unloosened the bands on their necks, as It was customary to lead them knotted, or perhaps they travelled with saddles girdled upon them…”
We see a different explanation for what was done to the camels. In this interpretation, the camels are either untied from one another, or their saddles were removed. Again, why is this important? Furthermore, it would seem that there is an actual argument over what specifically was done to the camels. Of all the matters to debate, why be concerned with what Lavan did to the camels? Ramban actually ends his commentary attacking Rashi’s premise of the camels’ muzzles being removed, as there would be no need to act in such a manner when dealing with the camels of Avraham (please see the Midrash he is referencing in its entirety– it seems Avraham’s camels would never eat from someone else’s pasture).
The questions here are pretty obvious. Before understanding the relevance to the story, we first need to look at this debate in a larger context. One of the fundamental concepts of Judaism, and one could argue humanity as a whole, involves the separation of man from animal. This is personified in the soul, the feature of man that undeniably creates a qualitative distinction between us and the animal kingdom. With this difference, however, comes a unique challenge – how does man relate to the animal world? We see an evolution (not that evolution) of this relationship, as Adam searched for a mate within the animal kingdom, as well as the pre-flood prohibition to eat meat. Ultimately, a relationship emerged where man was indeed the master of the animal world, perched atop the ladder. Man had, and has, the ability to control the animal world. At the same time, this feature of control needs to abide by the general dictum given to us by God, where the surrounding world serves to benefit man, rather than enforce a distorted image of self-importance. There is a concept of tzaar baalei chayim, where we cannot indiscriminately injure and animal for a useless purpose. Underlying this idea is the notion that there is a point where the animal’s service to man serves no functional purpose – and at that point, the relationship becomes skewed.
In the debate between Rashi and Ramban, we see two different types of control. Rashi maintains that the animals were muzzled through their travels, preventing them from eating other people’s produce. Animals operate purely by instinct, unable to discern between Reuven' field and Shimon'. To muzzle an animal for preventative purposes is to demonstrate complete control over the animal’s instinctual drives. It cannot operate in line with its existence, a conceptual type of dominance. According to Rashi, then, the muzzles were removed, as there was no longer any need to exercise this control. However, there is another type of control. When an owner ties his animals together, or rides on them, he is demonstrating how the animal is subservient to him. It is an assertion of direct control, showing that the animal is physically submissive and that man is his ruler. This display is non-problematic as long as there is a functional benefit to the person. Yet it becomes an issue when it is done just for the sake of showing that man is the dominant species. Thus, according to Ramban, the saddles were removed/the ties loosened once Eliezer was in Lavan’s house.
What do we make of all this? Why is this the time to discuss man and his treatment of animals? As we know, this is our first introduction to Lavan. And we also know that Lavan was the personification of rishus, the evil in man – “arami oved avi”, understood by many to be referring to Lavan’s treatment of Yaakov. However, one should not view him as a caricature of evil. It could be the Torah is letting us know a rasha is not a one-dimensional person. Lavan was part of the extended family of Avraham, who without question was influenced by his ideas. Avraham’s teachings to the world went beyond monotheism; they included fundamentals about man and his relationship to his surrounding world. The way Lavan related to the camels indicated that he accepted certain truisms that Avraham brought forth. As the discussion concerning Rivkah would proceed, it seems the Torah wants us to be aware of this facet of Lavan’s personality. This is not to engender sympathy; rather, it is important we be able to view Lavan in a complete light, thus avoiding the trap of the caricature. Amazingly, what would seem to be an easily overlooked action regarding these camels turns out to offer us a new insight into Lavan’s personality.