Did you ever notice that we get most the characters in the stories of Bereshit wrong? Ishmael did nothing wrong but was banished. Esau was defrauded of his birthright and blessing yet was branded the bad guy. And in our parsha, we meet Laban who according to HAZAL is the embodiment of evil. Yaacov marries his two daughters, Rachel and Leah – and notice the order I put them in, the order that everyone puts them in, including in prayers – Rachel and Leah, even though Leah was first. We know that Yaacov loved Rachel and so we tend to shy away from Leah. But perhaps that’s not right.
Let’s look at what Yaacov actually got. He saw Rachel at the well and fell in love with her. He and her father Laban agreed on a bride-price: 7 years of work. And when that period had passed, he was tricked and given Leah. Only after another 7-year period did he receive Rachel, the true object of his desire.
What was Laban’s true reasoning? His older daughter, Leah, had a blemish, “weak eyes.” What that means is anyone’s guess. But what is clear is that she would not bring a good bride-price, if any.
If Rachel was married off before Leah, it would be obvious that Leah was not worth a bride-price, and Laban would be stuck. He could give her away to someone as a second wife but he wouldn’t get anything in return, and Laban did not give things away.
So here is Laban’s reasoning. He has contracted for seven years of work from Yaacov for a bride. Note, Yaacov stipulates “Rachel, your younger daughter,” even though he knows that the custom of the place is to marry off the elder before the younger. But Laban knows he has a sucker on the line, a guy who is so head over heels in love with Rachel that he can even sell him the Brooklyn Bridge – twice! According to Dr. Gabi Barzilai, this may be why Laban said: It’s better I give her to you than to someone else. Meaning, I know I can stick it to you.
In other words, this was Laban’s line of reasoning: We have seven years. If during that time Leah gets married, great. If not, I’ll give her to Yaacov and get another seven years of work out of him. According to Barzilai, Yaacov knew the local custom and therefore his thinking was this: If Leah doesn’t get married in these seven years, Laban will have to give me both Leah and Rachel, for the same price.
Theories aside, let’s look at what Yaacov wanted and what he needed, and what he got. We know he wanted Rachel. We know he needed children – people had children because they assured the future and provided working hands for the family.
He got Rachel, but first he got Leah. And it’s a good thing he did! Because Leah was the woman he actually needed (not wanted!). She provided him with children. Six boys and a girl while Rachel was barren. And so it turned out that Laban’s tricking Yaacov actually created us! You don’t get very far with two kids –Rachel eventually had Yosef and Benjamin. Let’s do the arithmetic. Avraham had just two and one was a throw-away. Yitzhak had two and one was a throw-away. Here Rachel had two, and one of them was THROWN away (later). So Laban was actually our savior!
The story of Yaacov is probably the most visceral of our fore-bearers. From the time he finagles the birthright from Esau and then tricks his father into giving him Esau’s blessing, his life is fraught with controversy and confrontation. Even when he has the ladder dream, he makes a deal with God. You help me and I’ll accept you and I’ll pay you a commission, a tithe, he says.
He is supposedly a quiet fellow, a tent-dweller (whatever that means) but he is strong when necessary and always seems to be calculating the angles. Then he meets his match with Laban who INVENTED the angles that Yaacov tries to exploit. (Spoiler alert: Yaacov does win in the end but feels that he loses.)
At the same time, Yaacov doesn’t understand why everyone’s out to get him. He’s a nice guy and just wants to live his life. He will continue on this path of passive-aggressiveness, including the treachery of two of his sons who destroy a whole city, and the most engrossing story in the Bible, of Yosef and his travails and travels.
His two most pressing problems in our parsha are Laban and Rachel’s barrenness. Until Rachel finally has a child, Yosef – Yaacov won’t leave Laban.
Yaacov has many devils to fight. Four wives. 13 children. Laban in the foreground, Esau in the background. “Why is everybody always picking on me?” he thinks. I didn’t do anything wrong.
And that’s just human nature, to see how right we are and how wrong others are. We certainly see it a lot today, here, there and just about everywhere. Whether in international policies or internal politics – we’re right. Our leaders are right. We don’t understand why others can’t see that. So the buck never stops, it just jumps from hand to hand, here, there and everywhere, and we pay the price. Yaacov would have understood.