Chayei Sarah – Two Faced Politician

Did you ever wonder what Lavan’s profession was? The Medrish Rabba (Breishis 60:7) says he was a politician and the Maharz”u on the Medrish says his name wasn’t really Lavan it was either Kemuel (Listed in the end of last week’s Torah Portion) or Bilaam (Yes, the famous Bilaam, see Targum Yonasan ben Uziel in Bamidbar 22:5).
That Medrish Rabba in fact makes an argument for why he was known as Lavan: “Rebbe Yitzhak says it was praise, he was dexterous and clever. However Rebbe Brechya said it had a negative connotation meaning white with wickedness.”

Rashi on the Medrish explains that according to Rebbe Yitzhak he was Second in Command, a ruler who would protect the wronged and “whiten” (or defend) their deeds and would judge court cases between a man and his fellow, and whiten (or clarify) judgement. The Etz Yosef adds that this was a great praise for him. According to Rebbe Brechya his wickedness was as white, or clear for everyone to see. (Click here for Hebrew text)

If we accept the argument that the name of Lavan was a great praise, we must also then say that he was a very complex individual. For it would seem that Lavan was a very honest individual who was always trying to make peace and always supportive of the underdog. He was known for this, and had the power and intelligence to carry out this noble lifestyle. On the other hand we know Lavan was also a sly con artist. Rashi in the Chumash (Breishis 29:18) says that Yaakov had to give Rachel signs before their wedding night because he knew [Lavan] was a fraudster. Even worse, we say in the Haggada: “Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean attempted to do to our father Yaakov! For Pharaoh decreed only against the males and Lavan attempted to uproot everything, as it says (Devarim 26:5) ‘An Aramean attempted to destroy my father, and he descended to Egypt etc.’” Lavan was a worse villain than Pharaoh!

How could someone known to be so evil and dishonest also have a reputation for standing up for honesty and pursuing peace?

There are a number of indicators in Chumash (with Rashi) that Lavan had an eye for wealth. This seems to have been the source of his downfall, as we see in this week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, regarding when Rivka comes home with Eliezer, Avraham’s servant: “Rivka had a brother whose name was Lavan: Lavan ran to the man, outside to the spring” (24:29). Rashi asks why Lavan ran, and for what did he run for? Rashi answers that when he saw the nose ring [given to Rivka, Lavan said to himself] ‘he must be rich’ and he wanted to eye his money.

When Rachel brings Yaakov home, the Torah relates: “And it was, when Lavan heard the news of Yaakov his sister’s son, he ran towards him, embraced him, kissed him, and took him to his house; he recounted to Lavan all these events” (Breishis 29:13). Rashi on that pasuk says that Lavan thought he was carrying money, because in the previous visit the servant of his house came with ten loaded camels.

We see from this how complex a human being is. A person can be a beloved leader, helping the underdog, and determined to resolve justice with a good name, while simultaneously being so corrupt that he is known throughout history as the prototypical swindler, a person worse than the evil Pharaoh. All because money got the better of him.

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