insults. And perhaps all of these features are on display in this week's Torah portion; in our antagonist, our adversary, the "bad guy" of our parashah, Laban. To set the stage: Jacob has fled from his home, where his brother, Esau, threatened to kill him. He seeks refuge with his uncle, Laban, because family is always there to protect and care for us, right? What could possibly go wrong?
Well, as you may know, Jacob spends a couple of tough decades with Laban. He works for seven years in order to marry one daughter, but is tricked into marrying the other. He must then start working seven MORE years for daughter #2. Time and again, Laban changes his wages, cheats him, and basically tries to keep him as an
indentured servant for as long as possible. When Jacob finally does break free, and literally flees with his family in the night, Laban chases him down and accuses him of stealing. When he can't prove Jacob's guilt, he begrudgingly lets him go, but not before declaring, "The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine!" (Gen. 31:43) Laban is greedy, manipulative, power-hungry, domineering, and aggressive... which is why it is terrific that his name, Laban," comes from the Hebrew root "L,V,N," meaning "white," "pure," or even "kind." Perfect, don't you think?
On one level, we can view this as sarcasm. Laban was clearly anything BUT "pure"! This same word can even mean "to clarify," which again seems almost comical, considering what a charlatan and scoundrel he was. But, as we know, the Torah also operates on many levels.
Laban, "whitey," might be a Biblical joke, but the character also likes to present himself as honest and upstanding; he likes to "bleach" his reputation, and "whitewash" all his actions. Even in English, you can see how the word can mean many things, and often evokes several sentiments at the same time. Laban surely perceived HIMSELF as pure, and probably even wore his name with pride... even as he acted dastardly at every turn. It's a good reminder to us all, that everyone is the protagonist in their own story. We sometimes cannot imagine why someone acts the way s/he does, and believe it MUST BE for nefarious reasons. Yet most of the time, in their own minds, they are the good guy, standing up for some value or principle that no one else will protect.
As we go deeper still into the text, we also realize that Jacob learned a lot from Laban. Not all good things, perhaps, but he became a stronger, more resilient, tougher person, in part because he was forced to "survive" living with Laban. Many times, we look at our own lives and lament all the trials and tribulations we've endured; only to realize they actually taught us SO much. Good things come from our struggles,
even when those silver linings are VERY hard to spot in the moment. I wonder if, despite everything, Jacob could still bless his decades with Laban, and feel gratitude for all he gained; not the least of which were wives, children, livestock, and wealth. The word "Lavan" can ALSO mean "to make bricks," oddly enough. Laban was an entrepreneur, a builder, a doer! These qualities too were passed on to Jacob, and so Laban DID, on some level, "build up" Jacob as a person as well. Our ancient rabbis teach us: "Who is wise? One who learns from all people." The key word here is "all." It's easy to learn from people we trust, or love, or respect. But even the "Labans" in our lives have something to impart. That doesn't mean we have to believe all their "bleached" stories; just look for the "bricks" hiding under the surface. Add them to YOUR story and be built up by them. It may give you more "clarity" than you could have possibly imagined.
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