Lavan’s Last Move

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

The feud between Yaakov and Lavan reaches a climax of sorts at the end of Parsha Vayeitzei. When the dust settles, Lavan suggests a covenant be established between the warring parties--a reasonable suggestion. And, naturally, such a covenant would have conditions and stipulations, which is standard fare in such situations. Yet when we see the actual conditions placed on the covenant by Lavan, we are left scratching our heads for some type of explanation. 

The covenant is presented by the Torah as follows (Bereishis 31:50-53):

“If you afflict my daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters when no one is with us, behold! God is a witness between me and you.  And Laban said to Jacob, "Behold this pile and behold this monument, which I have cast between me and you.  This pile is a witness, and this monument is a witness, that I will not pass this pile [to go] to you and that you shall not pass this pile and this monument to [come to] me to [do] harm. May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor judge between us, the god of their father. And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac. “

There are numerous questions that can be raised concerning this covenant; we will focus on two of them. The first question involved the initial condition Lavan placed on this pledge, namely the possible “affliction” of his daughters, as well as a warning to take additional wives. The commentaries, based on the Talmud, offer a further clarification of Lavan’s condition. According to Rashi, this condition is Lavan’s insistence that Yaakov not withhold intimate relations with his daughters. Thus, Lavan is not just ensuring Yaakov’s unyielding devotion to his daughters; he wants a guarantee that the marriages will never turn into non-intimate relationships.

Let’s suppose such a conversation took place between a chassan, kallah and the kallah’s father. Imagine the words of caution coming from the father requesting that the chassan never withhold intimacy from the kallah. Not a normal back and forth, to say the least. How can we understand this condition placed on Yaakov?

There is another condition Lavan mentions. He explains that neither one engaged in this covenant ever “cross the line”. The Ibn Ezra explains that this refers to the prevention of one person's evil intentions towards the other. The Chizkuni goes further, writing that a mutual defense pact was being suggested by Lavan. If Yaakov was attacked by his enemies, Lavan would be bound by the covenant to join in his defense. And, if Lavan were attacked, Yaakov would have the same responsibility. 

Was Lavan being genuine here? We know Lavan was one of the reshayim par excellence on the list of the enemies of the Jewish people. Was this a trick? 

The key to understanding this covenant is in perceiving the state of mind of Lavan in the moment. Looking back at the events preceding the suggestion of the covenant, we see Lavan incensed. He discovers that Yaakov has outwitted him, and amassed a considerable fortune with his cattle. Lavan chases after Yaakov, only to be warned by God not to harm him. He then accuses Yaakov of stealing his idols. Rochel hides them, and Lavan is left with an empty “J’accuse”. His accusation of theft was, in essence, his last card to play. He had no other moves. He was done.

In this state of mind, he conjures up this covenant. The first of the conditions, as we asked above, seems something strange to ask for. What was Lavan concerned with? Clearly, his relationship with Yaakov had been permanently altered. He assumed that Yaakov would bear a tremendous amount of resentment, viewing Lavan as a ruthless enemy. Therefore, Lavan’s first step was to create a differentiation. Yaakov was “entitled” to have any lingering aggression towards him, but Yaakov could not view Lavan’s daughters as extensions of Lavan. Lavan was concerned that Yaakov would see his face when he looked at his daughters, and it would anger him. The underlying aggression would manifest in his lack of interest in Leah or Rochel. In reality, Lavan was seeking to ensure that Yaakov would keep the feud between them personal.

With this condition in place, Lavan moves to the second consideration. As we mentioned before, Lavan had played his last card and failed. In this deal he wanted Yaakov to enter into, Lavan wanted to make sure things stayed between the two of them. He was also sensitive to the hatred Yaakov probably would have against him. Now Lavan qualifies how this hatred would eventually express itself – as an act of vengeance. Lavan feared Yaakov striking back at him as a reaction to the false accusations and repeated deceit. Therefore, Lavan sought to create a future where this potential for vengeance was never able to be realized. Lavan would never act “badly” towards Yaakov, and vice versa. Yaakov, bound by this covenant, would keep those emotions of revenge in place. This would appear to be the explanation of the Ibn Ezra. The Chizkuni builds off of this, picturing Lavan as seeking more than simply the guarantee of never acting on the desire for vengeance. Lavan, in fact, wanted Yaakov to offer a positive demonstration that these feelings were not part of the equation. He wanted Yaakov to pledge himself as an ally, knowing full well that such a demonstration meant Lavan was safe.

Based on these explanations, we see how Lavan completely trusted Yaakov to abide by this covenant. At the same time, we are never quite sure what Yaakov is thinking; it is hard to imagine one of the avos bearing such a grudge. However, we do see Lavan’s keen insights into the psyche of the average person, and how he was a wily negotiator. Possessing underlying feelings of aggression, as well as the need for vengeance, are hallmark characteristics of those who fall prey to such deceit as proffered by someone like Lavan. Always worried about protecting his own skin, he creates an everlasting covenant with Yaakov, and succeeds in ensuring he will live another day.