Vayeitzei: Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

Posted on November 24, 2023 by Harold Levin

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, primarily covers the narrative of Jacob’s journey to Haran, his experiences there, and the beginnings of his family. The majority of this parsha is devoted to the concept of deception. Most of us know that Jacob tricked Esau into giving up his birthright and that Laban outwitted Jacob.

In last week’s parsha, Toldot (Genesis 25:19–28:9), Jacob deceives his father, Isaac, with the help of his mother, Rebekah, to receive the blessing intended for his older brother Esau. This deception strains the relationship between Jacob and Esau, and Esau expresses a desire to kill Jacob. In response, Rebekah sends Jacob to her brother Laban, in Haran, to keep him safe and find a suitable wife.

On his very first day, Jacob meets Laban’s teenaged daughter, Rachel, and falls in love with her. Laban told Jacob he would have to perform labor for him for seven years before marrying Rachel. At the end of that period of time, Laban switches Rachel for Leah in marriage, and Jacob has to agree to work another seven years for Laban though he was allowed to marry Rachel seven days after he married Leah.

One might ask, did Jacob receive payback for how he treated Esau? Some may argue that Jacob faces hardships in Haran as a form of divine retribution for his earlier deceit, while others may see his success and eventual reconciliation with Esau as evidence of God’s guidance and providence.

Laban organized a feast for all the local men to celebrate with Jacob on the eve of his marriage to Rachel. The feast was nothing more than a raucous drinking party. When Laban presented his daughter to Jacob, he was allegedly drunk and the room was dark so he did not realize he had been presented with Leah, instead of his beloved Rachel, until the next morning. There is no explicit mention of Rachel deceiving Jacob in this regard. It seems to be Laban’s decision and action.

Here are the words of the scholars of the Tosafot from the 12th Century: Laban gathered all the men of the area and had a mishteh (feast, lit. drinking party) – Laban was the father of swindlers, and this is why he is called Laban the Aramean (i.e., understood as a metathesis for ramai, “trickster”), and he intended to get Jacob drunk in order to fool him such that he would be unable to distinguish between Rachel and Leah. Note [in support of this] that he made no “drinking party” for Rachel.

The text does not explicitly state whether Rachel knew in advance that Laban planned to send Leah to marry Jacob. One midrash that addresses Laban’s deceit is found in Midrash Rabbah, Genesis Rabbah 70:16. It recounts that when Jacob agreed to work for Laban for seven years to marry Rachel, Laban had deceitful intentions. According to the midrash, Laban thought that Jacob would not last for the full seven years of labor. However, when Jacob did fulfill his commitment, Laban orchestrated the switch between Rachel and Leah on the wedding night.

Rashi had the following to say about Jacob: “Jacob was a plain (tam) man, one who lived in tents. [Jacob] was not expert in all these things for his heart was his mouth. One who is not ingenious at deceiving people is called tam, plain, simple.

To conclude, the debate will continue onward about Jacob and it is one that I remember having a conversation about Jacob with my paternal grandfather about 50 years ago. He was particularly incensed because the Rabbi who was serving his community at that time in Western Pennsylvania had given a sermon where he said that Jacob really did not care who he married and was in bed with that first night because he was just happy to be with someone after seven years of hard labor. My grandfather found that to be an insensitive and shallow viewpoint. He felt that Jacob had absolutely wronged his brother, Esau, but that two wrongs do not make things right. Having read many commentaries about this topic in recent days, I will concur with my grandfather!

Wishing all of you a Shabbat Shalom!

Harold Levin

Guest service leader