Yom Rishon, 16 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 28 February 2021
Parashat Chayyei Sarah 2013

Parashat Chayyei Sarah
Rabbi Alexandra Wright

25 October 2013

Parashat Chayyei Sarah begins with the death of the first matriarch Sarah, Abraham’s negotiation with the Hittites to purchase a burial place for her and continues with Abraham sending the chief steward of his household to Haran to find a bride for his son Isaac. Like all good romantic stories, all ends happily, a bride is found for the bridegroom and both seem happy for the time being with the outcome.

But no good story is complete without its villain and it is in this parashah that we are introduced to an individual, whose presence initially seems innocuous here – he appears hospitable, anxious to please his guest and solicitous of his sister.· Laban is the alleged villain in question and is Rebekah’s brother and his presence in this chapter of Genesis (24) is presented ambivalently. He appears half way through the story, introduced once the servant of Abraham makes his appearance at the home of Bethuel (father of Rebekah and Laban).

U’l’Rivkah ach, u’shemo Lavan – ‘Now Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban.· Laban ran out to the man at the spring – when he saw the nose-ring and the bands on his sister’s arms…’· Why does he appear only when the servant starts to produce the gifts from his master – a nose-ring and the bracelets which have been given to Rebekah? Is his hospitality altruistic or does he have an ulterior motive in welcoming the stranger?

Whatever the answer, the Sages take an active dislike to Laban. · From the meaning of his name Lavan – which is Hebrew for ‘white’, the Rabbis said he was ‘exceptionally white’, inferring that he was a ‘refined rogue’, in other words, he was whitened or polished in evil.

Rashi asks: ‘Why did he run out to greet the man?’· It was for no other reason than he saw the rings and gold bands on his sister’s arms and said to himself: This man is wealthy and he cast his eyes at the money.

We come across Laban later on in the Torah, when Isaac’s younger son Jacob leaves home, having stolen both birthright and the blessing reserved for the older son, his twin brother, Esau.· He flees to the birthplace of their mother.· And how telling again when Laban is introduced by his daughter Rachel to Jacob: he runs to greet him, embraces him and kisses him and takes him into his house.· Is it genuine affection – the nephew whom he has never met, or is there something more sinister in the way Laban greets Jacob?

And is Laban really as ‘white’ as he seems?· He offers to pay Jacob’s wages for working for him and he agrees to give his younger daughter Rachel to Jacob as a wife.· And yet he practises two deceptions: in the first place he substitutes the older daughter Leah for the younger at the wedding so that when Jacob wakes up in the morning he finds himself not with his beloved Rachel, but with the plainer, unwanted Leah and must serve another seven years for Rachel.· And secondly, Laban profits from Jacob’s hard work over a period of twenty years.· When Jacob and Laban part amidst an argument over payment of wages, Laban believes that he is getting a bargain, removing all the goats with ‘white’ markings on them and giving them to his own sons instead of to Jacob, but eventually is outwitted by his son-in-law. There is a rift and Jacob leaves in stealth although Laban catches up with him and a covenant is made between the two.

This difficult relationship as told in the Torah becomes a kind of ‘type’ in later Jewish history.· Jacob represents the Jewish people and Laban – because he comes from Syria - becomes the archetypal villain, the oppressor of the Jewish people.· And that is how we meet him in the Pesach Haggadah, not as Jacob’s father-in-law, but as a kind of Haman figure, a persecutor, seeking to destroy the Jewish people.

The Rabbis, if you’ll excuse the pun, paint a very black and white picture of Laban and Jacob.· Jacob or Israel – righteous, upright, good, representing the Jewish people; Laban deceptive, cunning, dishonest, oppressive – representing the regimes that sought to destroy the Jewish people.

But we know that life is not black and white, it is more often grey and further nuanced with shades of light and dark.· Jacob is also deceptive and cunning, and perhaps Laban is after all not as wicked as Jewish tradition makes him out to be.

At its very worst, religion can demonise the one who is a stranger to us, the one whose face is so ‘whitened’ that we cannot distinguish its features or form; we withdraw from any relationship with the other.· At its very best, religion – Judaism – can teach us about relationship. That I cannot be ‘I’ without standing in a relationship with you, with the one who faces me.· For we are changed by the relationships we have with others, we are transformed by seeing their faces, by conversation and encounter with those among whom we live.