The Birth of the World’s Oldest Hate
“Go and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob. Pharaoh made his decree only about the males, whereas Laban sought to destroy everything.” This passage from the Haggadah on Pesach — which is based on this week’s parsha — is extraordinarily difficult to understand.
First, it is a commentary on the phrase in Deuteronomy, Arami oved avi. As the overwhelming majority of commentators point out, the meaning of this phrase is “my father was a wandering Aramean” — a reference either to Jacob, who escaped to Aram, or to Abraham, who left Aram in response to God’s call to travel to the land of Canaan. It does not mean “an Aramean [Laban] tried to destroy my father.” Some commentators read it this way, but they almost certainly do so because of the passage in the Haggadah.
Second, nowhere in the parsha do we find that Laban actually tried to destroy Jacob. He deceived him, tried to exploit him, and chased after him. Yet as he was about to catch up with Jacob, God appeared to him in a dream at night and said: “Be very careful not to say anything, good or bad, to Jacob.” (Gen. 31:22). When Laban complains about the fact that Jacob was trying to escape, Jacob replies: “Twenty years now I have worked for you in your estate — fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for some of your flocks. You changed my wages ten times!” (31:41). All this suggests that Laban behaved outrageously to Jacob, treating him like an unpaid laborer, almost a slave, but not that he tried to “destroy” him — to kill him as Pharaoh tried to kill all male Israelite children.
Third, the Haggadah and the seder service are about how the Egyptians enslaved and practiced slow genocide against the Israelites, and how God saved us from slavery and death. Why should we seek to diminish this whole narrative by saying that, actually, Pharaoh’s decree was not that bad, Laban’s was worse. This seems to make no sense, either in terms of the central theme of the Haggadah or in relation to the actual facts as recorded in the biblical text.
How then are we to understand it?
Perhaps the answer is this. Laban’s behavior is the paradigm of antisemites through the ages. It was not so much what Laban did that the Haggadah is referring to, but what his behavior gave rise to. How so?
Laban begins by seeming like a friend Jacob. He offers Jacob refuge when he is in flight from Esau, who has vowed to kill him. Yet it turns out that Laban’s behavior is less generous than self-interested and calculating. Jacob works for Laban for seven years in order to marry Rachel. Then, on the wedding night, Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel. In order to marry Rachel, Jacob has to work another seven years. When Joseph is born to Rachel, Jacob tries to leave. Laban protests. Jacob works another six years, and then realizes that the situation is untenable. Jacob senses that Laban himself is becoming hostile. Rachel and Leah agree, saying, “he treats us like strangers! He has sold us and spent the money!” (31:14-15).
Jacob realizes that there is nothing he can do or say that will persuade Laban to let him leave. He has no choice but to escape. Laban then pursues him, and were it not for God’s warning, there is little doubt that he would have forced Jacob to return and live out the rest of his life as an unpaid laborer. As he says to Jacob the next day: “The daughters are my daughters! The sons are my sons! The flocks are my flocks! All that you see is mine!” (31:43). It turns out that everything Laban had ostensibly given Jacob, he had not given at all.
Laban treats Jacob as his property, his slave. He is a non-person. In his eyes, Jacob has no rights and no independent existence. He has given Jacob his daughters in marriage but still claims that they and their children belong to him, not Jacob. He has given Jacob animals in order to pay him for his service, yet still insists, “The flocks are my flocks.”
What arouses Laban’s anger and rage is that Jacob maintains his dignity and independence. Faced with an impossible existence as his father-in-law’s slave, Jacob always finds a way of carrying on. He has been cheated of his beloved Rachel, but he works so that he can marry her too. Yes he has been forced to work for nothing, but he uses his superior knowledge of animal husbandry to propose a deal that will allow him to build flocks of his own thus helping him maintain what is now a large family. Jacob refuses to be defeated. This is Jacob’s greatness. In a seemingly impossible situation Jacob retains his dignity, independence and freedom. Jacob is no man’s slave.
Laban is, in effect, the first antisemite. In age after age, Jews sought refuge from those, like Esau, who sought to kill them. Other nations who gave them refuge, and seemed at first to be benefactors. But they demanded a price. They saw, in Jews, people who would make them rich. Wherever Jews went, they brought prosperity to their hosts. Yet they refused to be owned. They had their own identity and way of life, and they insisted on the basic human right to be free. The host society then eventually turned against them, claiming that Jews were exploiting them. And when Jews succeeded, their neighbors accused them of theft: “The flocks are my flocks! All that you see is mine!” They forgot that Jews had contributed massively to national prosperity. That was when it became dangerous to be a Jew.
Laban was the first to display this tendency, but not the last. It happened again in Egypt after the death of Joseph. It happened under the Greeks and Romans, the Christian and Muslim empires of the Middle Ages, the European nations of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and after the Russian Revolution.
In her fascinating book, World on Fire, Amy Chua argues that ethnic hatred will always be directed by the host society against any conspicuously successful minority when these three conditions are present.
- The hated group must be a minority.
- They must be successful.
- They must be conspicuous.
Jews tended to fit all three. That is why we are hated. And it began with Jacob during his stay with Laban.
What the sages are saying in the Haggadah now becomes clear. Pharaoh was a one-time enemy of the Jews, but Laban exists, in one form or another, in age after age. The syndrome still exists today. As Chua notes, Israel — in the context of the Middle East — is a conspicuously successful minority. The result is envy, which became anger, which became hate.
When the story is told this way, we begin to see Jacob in a new light. Jacob stands for minorities and small nations everywhere. He maintains his inner dignity and freedom. He contributes to other people’s prosperity but he defeats every attempt to be exploited. Jacob is the voice that says: I too am human. I too have rights. I, too, am free.
If Laban is the eternal paradigm of hatred, then Jacob is the eternal paradigm of the human capacity to survive the hatred of others. In this strange way Jacob becomes the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind, the living proof that hate never wins the final victory; freedom does.