What Jacob Learns from Laban’s Deceit | Aleph Beta

What To Do When You’re Not Dad’s Favorite

Jacob Learns From Laban’s Deceit

Immanuel Shalev


When we first met Jacob in the previous parsha, he was in a pretty unfair position. His father favored his brother Esav, and, by the end of the parsha, it seemed like he was ready to leave Jacob out of the family legacy. When Jacob learned about Isaac’s plans to pass blessings on to Esav, he was forced to make a difficult choice: Should he resign himself to his father’s decision, or should he do something about it? In the end, Jacob chose to deceive his father Isaac and take the blessings for himself.

Which leaves us wondering, did Jacob make the wrong decision? On the one hand, he tricked his father and stole from his brother – that doesn’t seem right. On the other hand, what was he supposed to do? Sit back, accept that he was unloved and let himself become irrelevant? That doesn’t seem right either. So what’s the answer? A closer look at our parsha may tell us.

Join Imu and David as they explore a number of fascinating links between the story of Jacob’s deceit of Isaac in the previous parsha, and his interactions with his uncle Lavan in this parsha. These links may suggest what Jacob should in fact have done – and reveal a key insight into Jacob’s evolving character.

Click here for Jacob: Man of Truth


David: Welcome to Parshat Vayeitzei.

So far, we've learned about Abraham and we've learned about Isaac.

David: Now we're up to Jacob – the next generation. Imagine you didn't know Jacob's story. What would expect to hear next?

You might expect to learn all about how Jacob continues the legacy. That he shows everyone what it means to have a relationship with God and that he models kindness, righteousness, and justice to the rest of the world! And then he passes those great virtues to his family, to children, so that they can continue the legacy after him.

After all Jacob must be a great role model, there are 25 chapters about him, he gets more air time than anyone else in Genesis. Our nation is even named after him, we become the children of Israel – he must be a really great guy!

Immanuel: But that's not what we find at all. At least not in the parshiot that focus on the first part of Jacob's life. There's actually one theme that seems to wend its way through many of the Jacob stories… and it's not a theme that any of us would be particularly proud of: It seems to be all about deception.

Understanding the Story of Jacob and Laban

David: In the last parsha, Isaac was ready to give his blessing to Esau, but Jacob – under the guidance of his mother – seemed to deceive his father in order to get the blessing for himself.

In this parsha, Jacob himself is deceived by Laban when Laban gives him Leah as a wife instead of Rachel. Later in the parsha, Jacob seems to deceive Laban as he and his family try to sneak out of Laban's house. All in all, it's just not a pretty picture.

Immanuel: What are we supposed to make of all this? Why does the Torah tell us all these stories about Jacob and deception? It doesn't seem like something we would expect from our forefathers, from someone who is continuing the legacy. Is deception really the lesson we're supposed to learn from Jacob? What are we supposed to learn from it?

David: Join us as we explore these questions and so much more, on the Parsha Experiment.

Immanuel: Hi, I'm Imu Shalev.

David: And I'm David Block.

Immanuel: And welcome to the Parsha Experiment. Before we get into this week's parsha, let's check out what happens in it with a 20 second recap.

  • Jacob runs away, and on his way, he has this dream of a ladder with angels… and God confirms that he'll continue his covenant with Jacob.
  • Jacob meets Rachel and immediately falls in love.
  • Laban tricks Jacob and gives him Leah instead of Rachel, and Jacob ends up marrying both.
  • Leah has a bunch of kids and Rachel becomes jealous.
  • Rachel finally has a child.
  • Jacob gets wealthy with a whole plan with spotted and speckled sheeps.
  • Jacob runs away from Laban, and Rachel steals her father's idols.

Immanuel: If you're a long time Aleph Beta listener, you might know that Rabbi Fohrman has a ton of material on these episodes of Jacob's life – a parsha video here, a series there. He goes through each story and uncovers what's going on in magnificent detail. Links below.

However, our challenge is to show you how all these amazing theories fit together… we want to give you taste of what might be going on here in the bigger picture. So let's start. What are we supposed to learn from all these deception stories?

David: In the last few videos – we discussed not just what it means to be chosen for a divine mission, but also about the built-in challenges that come along with being favored. When you get gifts of wealth and land, it's easy to focus on yourself, and to flaunt what you have.

When God gave Abraham and Isaac gifts, they had to be careful not to be insensitive to those who weren't given those same gifts, but to actually be the opposite – to use the gifts sensitively to positively impact others.

Immanuel: Abraham and Isaac's challenge was about how to properly deal with being favored, in a sense. But there's always another side to the favoritism coin… when someone is favored, it means that someone else is not.

Who Was Isaac's Favorite Son?

David: And that is where Jacob comes in. Even before Isaac was born, God made it clear to Abraham that Isaac would be chosen as the one to carry on his father's legacy. It was never a question. But that wasn't true with Jacob.

Esau was clearly his father's favorite. וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת-עֵשָׂו – Isaac loved Esau. He favored one son over the other, and Jacob got the raw end of the deal. That's not something that Isaac had ever experienced, his father never loved one son over the other.

Jacob was the unfavored son. Yes, it's true that וְרִבְקָה, אֹהֶבֶת אֶת-יַעֲקֹב – Rebecca favored Jacob – but in terms of continuing his father's legacy, Jacob was the unfavored son.

Immanuel: And just like being favored and chosen has its challenges – as we saw with Abraham and Isaac – not being favored has its own set of really difficult challenges. How do you react to those who have more than you? What happens when you feel like you're being mistreated, when you feel like others are unfairly getting what you deserve? How do you deal with it? That is going to be Jacob's challenge.

The Outcome of Isaac's Love for Esau?

David: And with that in mind, let's look at the blessings story. It all started when Isaac made it very clear that he was going to bless Esau, that he was going to continue his legacy with him. Rebecca and Jacob realized that's what was really going on. And they thought Isaac was wrong. They saw what Isaac didn't see, that Jacob was really going to be the one to continue Abraham's legacy, not Esau.

Immanuel: So what did they do? If you're looking at the story through the lens of the two sides of favoritism and the challenges that come along with it, this moment right here is an epic, defining moment for Jacob. How would Jacob handle not being favored? Being passed over, not given what he thought he deserved?

We often read stories with the end in mind – we assume that things had to have happened the way they did. Jacob had to deceive Isaac to get the blessing. But maybe that's not true. What were Jacob's options?

What about just being honest? He could've called a meeting… He could've sat down with his father and mother and had an open conversation. Who knows if it would've been successful, but at the very least, he could've tried to voice his feelings, maybe make the case as to why he should get the blessing. Isaac was probably a reasonable guy.

David: The other way is to do it is to bypass all of that, to go behind Isaac's back and to justify it. To say to yourself: "Okay, if my father is making a mistake, if I'm getting the short end of the favoritism stick, if I'm not getting what I deserve, well… I'll do whatever it takes to get it." Perhaps Jacob could've have that honest conversation. Instead, he chose the second option.

Immanuel: The question is, was he right? The story ends and leaves us pretty uncomfortable. I mean, he tricked his father, and that seems terrible. But maybe he had legitimate justification for it. He clearly saw something that Isaac didn't see. And, Jacob was right in the end… God really did continue Abraham and Isaac's promise through Jacob, not Esau! But do the ends justify the means?

David: If you keep reading, if you don't see the story in isolation, you'll find something fascinating. And that brings us to this week's parsha. In the next major story in Jacob's life, the text itself seems to become almost a commentary on Jacob's deception of his father.

Jacob Works for Laban for Rachel and Leah

Immanuel: Here's what happens. Jacob runs away from Esau and winds up at his uncle Laban's home. Laban invites Jacob to stay with him, and asks Jacob what his wages are for his work. Jacob says that he'll work for Laban for seven years in exchange for his daughter Rachel's hand in marriage. And Laban seems to agree.

Well, Jacob completes his seven years, but things don't go as planned. Laban deceives Jacob and switches his daughters… he gives Jacob Leah, Laban's eldest daughter, instead of Rachel.

David: Needless to say, Jacob's angry. Like anyone would be. He calls Laban to task:, מַה-זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לִּי – what did you do to me?הֲלֹא בְרָחֵל עָבַדְתִּי עִמָּךְ, – I worked these years for RACHEL, not Leah! וְלָמָּה רִמִּיתָנִי – why did you decieve me?

רִמִּיתָנִי – deceit – what an interesting word Jacob uses to describe how he was victimized. We've seen that word before… After Isaac realizes that he'd been tricked and that he'd given the blessing to Jacob, Isaac says to Esau: וַיֹּאמֶר, בָּא אָחִיךָ בְּמִרְמָה; וַיִּקַּח, בִּרְכָתֶךָ – your brother, Jacob, came in deceit and took your blessing. במרמה – in deceit. רמתני – it's the same word. But who was Isaac deceived by? Ah, that was Jacob.

Why Did Laban Trick Jacob?

Immanuel: It's like the text is drawing our attention to the connection between the stories. Jacob is all up in arms – he's furious! – because he's been the victim of deceit. Laban, why did you do that – it's not right!! But he didn't see it that way when, just a few chapters earlier, Jacob himself did something similar to his brother. Only when he's the victim does he feel how unfair that is.

David: And now look at how Laban responds to Jacob's accusation. וַיֹּאמֶר לָבָן, לֹא-יֵעָשֶׂה כֵן בִּמְקוֹמֵנוּ – Laban said, that's not how its done in our place, לָתֵת הַצְּעִירָה, לִפְנֵי הַבְּכִירָה – to give the younger before the older. On the surface, he was simply saying: Yeah, we agreed on Rachel, but sorry, it doesn't work like that.

But listen more deeply and try to feel what Laban is saying: "Jacob, I know what you do in your home – you, the younger son took the blessings from your older brother – but we don't do that here. We don't put the younger before the older." It's an implicit critique of Jacob, a bit of his own medicine.

Immanuel: But let's take a step back. Are these connections just there to show us a story about how Jacob tastes his own medicine? Why are the connections there? What are we supposed to learn from this? Here's a possible suggestion.

Connecting Jacob and Laban's Deceit

David: The Torah textually links the blessings episode to a story that we all intuitively know was immoral and wrong, Laban's deception, and by doing so, the Torah gives us commentary on Jacob's own actions.

Even though Jacob may have felt unrecognized by his father, and even though Jacob may have found justification in tricking his father, he went about it the wrong way – just as it's clear that Laban did. The answer isn't deception.

When there's an issue, when you feel like you're not being given a fair shot, you have to face it head-on. You have to confront it, honestly and openly. After all, Jacob knows this; it's what Jacob himself demanded of Laban – "Laban, you deceived me! That's not okay! If there was an issue, there are other ways to go about resolving it."

Immanuel: But look at how the Torah goes about teaching that lesson – to us, and to Jacob. This was really a lesson in empathy. Jacob obviously felt that what he did with his father and brother was okay. But as soon as he was on the receiving end, he all of the sudden had this incredible moral compass and immediately realized the immorality of Laban's deceit.

It seems that the text is pointing to something really powerful: sometimes, in order to understand the impact you have on others, you have to try to put yourself in their shoes – to experience it through their eyes. And when Laban turned the tables on Jacob, it was almost like a wake-up call for him. Jacob, how does it feel to be on the other end of deception?

Jacob's Lesson from Laban's Deceit

David: The story doesn't end here. Rabbi Fohrman suggested in last year's Vayishlach video that Jacob does turn himself around and becomes a man of truth.

He confronts Esau in next week's parsha face to face. He gives Esau gifts and says: קח נא את ברכתי – please, take these gifts… take ברכתי – that also means, take my blessing. It seems that Jacob does try to turn himself around and to reconcile with Esau.

And that's reflected in Jacob's name change. Jacob's name is Yaakov, which comes from the word that means crookedness, or slanted, and his name gets changed to Yisrael, and the verse tells us that that means one who confronts directly.

But there's a hidden meaning to the word Yisrael also. Look at how it's spelled. Yashar kel – the one who is straight with God. He gets his name changed from crooked, to the one who is straight, one who is honest.

Immanuel: And look at the first thing that Jacob conveys to Esau during that encounter: עִם-לָבָן גַּרְתִּי, וָאֵחַר עַד-עָתָּה – I have been living with Laban and have been delayed until now. It almost sounds like an excuse: the reason I haven't met you earlier is because I've been delayed. Really? Jacob has been delayed for 20 years?? What a strange thing to say.

But now we can understand what Jacob might really be saying: Since the time I took the blessings, I've been with Laban... you remember Laban, our deceptive uncle? I didn't know how it felt, I didn't realize the pain that I caused you, until someone did the same thing to me. I've been delayed with Laban, but I had the opportunity to see things the way you see them, and now, I'd like to reconcile.

David: These themes of favoritism, not being favored, deception, reconciliation – we'll see them a lot throughout the rest of Genesis. And Jacob's actions – even though he ultimately reconciles with Esau – will have echoes that will be felt later with his own family, with his own children: Rachel's deceit of her father when she takes the terafim, the deceit of Shechem by Levi and Simeon over their sister Dinah, the deceit of Jacob's children in the sale of Joseph, and the list goes on.

All of these are challenges that come along with being favored, or being on the other end of favoritism. And, ultimately, they're about figuring out how to reconcile – how to learn from past mistakes, how to grow, how to become people of integrity… How to become God's model nation.

Immanuel: Join us next time on The Parsha Experiment.

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