Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Parshat Vatezeh

Yaakov and Lavan's Working Relationship

When Lavan first met Yaakov, he embraced him, welcomed him into his house and declared: "Indeed, you are my bone and my flesh" (Bereshit 29:14), signifying a warm relationship.

However, it's very clear that Lavan often chose his words carefully, allowing them to be understood in a number of ways, so that he could take advantage of the situation. A prime example occurs after Yaakov has been with Lavan for a month. Lavan says:

הֲכִי אָחִי אַתָּה וַעֲבַדְתַּנִי חִנָּם הַגִּידָה לִּי מַה מַּשְׂכֻּרְתֶּךָ

There are two ways to translate and understand this passuk (ibid 15):

"Because you are my kinsman, should you work for me for free? Tell me what your wages shall be."

This translation implies that up until now Yaakov had been working for Lavan without pay. This put him on the level of a slave who does not get paid, but lives on the meals provided for him in return for his labor. Lavan seems to be saying to Yaakov that as he is family, he should be paid. Sounds good.

However, there is another way to understand the passuk:

"Are you my kinsman that you should work for me for free? Tell me what your wages shall be."

Slaves are not the only people that do not get paid a wage; the family members also do not get regular pay. They share a portion of the profits. Note that previously Yaakov had "stayed with him a full month" (ibid 14). Lavan, it appears, is therefore angry with Yaakov and is saying to him that he is not a clansman who does not have to pull his weight and yet share the profits. Lavan tells Yaakov that from now on he is a mere hired hand who must work hard to earn his keep.

Indeed, it is clear that Yaakov is considered to be a slave, for when his second set of seven years is over, Yaakov asks Lavan: "Send me away, and I will go to my place and to my land" (ibid 30:25).

Yaakov asks to be sent away – this an expression of being released from servitude. Furthermore, Yaakov also says: "Give [me] my wives and my children for whom I worked for you, and I will go, for you know my work, which I have worked for you" (ibid 26). A master has the right to keep the wives and children of a slave when he sets the salve free. Yaakov is therefore saying that he is not a slave for he worked for his wives – but the underlying theme is that he is treated as a slave.

Indeed, once Yaakov flees, in a further sign that he was not a free man, he explains to Lavan: "Because I was afraid, because I said, 'Lest you steal your daughters from me" (ibid 31:31). Yaakov is afraid that Lavan will insist on keeping his wives and children.

Lavan even says this implicitly claiming that by secretly fleeing Yakkov had: "led away my daughters like prisoners of war" (ibid 26). Lavan even claims that he has: "the power to inflict harm upon you" (ibid 29), i.e. the legal right to punish Yaakov for fleeing.
However, by this time Yaakov has had enough: "What is my transgression? What is my sin, that you have pursued me?" (ibid 36). Yaakov is saying that he is an independent unit and has no need to seek permission to leave.

Furthermore, Yaakov calls for an independent tribunal to judge between them and to clarify this. "Put it here, in the presence of my kinsmen and your kinsmen, and let them decide between the two of us" (ibid 37).

Lavan is rocked by this tribunal and feebly responds: "The daughters are my daughters, and the sons are my sons, and the animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine. Now, what would I do to these daughters of mine today, or to their children, whom they have borne?" (ibid 43). I.e. all he really, meant was that he would never harm his daughters, not that he would actually take them away.

Lavan clearly loses this tribunal as he is forced to make a pact with Yaakov as equals acknowledging that Yaakov is his own separate clan over which he has no rights.

Last year's Sedra Short for Parshat VaYetseh, entitled: " Yaakov's Guilt” appears at

Another Sedra Short for Parshat VaYetseh, entitled: " The Dust of The Earth" can be found at

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