Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Chaye Sarah Genesis 23:1-25:18
By Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel - Laban, the scoundrel with style, appears for the first time in this week's Torah reading - when Abraham's trusted servant Eliezer chooses Laban's sister Rebecca as the most suitable wife for Isaac. As the Abrahamic family saga continues in the pages of the Book of Genesis, Laban emerges as a major player, but a most negative and even destructive force: when his nephew Jacob escapes his brother Esau's wrath by seeking refuge with Uncle Laban, Laban tricks Jacob by giving him his older daughter under the nuptial canopy, stoops to chicanery to cheat Jacob out of his rightful wages, and does everything in his power to prevent Jacob from returning to his homeland of destiny, the land of Israel. Indeed the author of the Passover Haggadah cries out: "Pharoah only decreed against the (Israelite) males, while Laban desired to uproot (Israel) entirely."
But if Laban is indeed such a scoundrel, why do our Sages learn so much from him, specifically with regard to customs surrounding marriage?! When Eliezer asks for Rebecca's hand in marriage to Isaac, Laban responds, "Let us call the young maiden, and ask as to her desire" (Genesis 24:57). From this, the Talmud derives the principle that it is forbidden for a parent to marry off his daughter without her consent (B.T. Kiddushin 2b, 41a). Our Torah portion continues, "And they blessed Rebecca" (Genesis 24:60). From this we learn the necessity of reciting a blessing over an engagement (Tractate Kallah, Tosafot ad loc). Laban's send-off to his sister are the very words recited to the bride immediately before she walks to the nuptial canopy, the words spoken at the badeken (Yiddish for the covering of the bride's face with a veil), to this very day: "our sister, may you become (the mother of) thousands of myriads, and may your seed inherit the gate of his enemies" (Genesis 24:60). And there are many religio-legal responsa which cite Laban's words in justification for his having produced the wrong sister, the elder Leah instead of the younger Rachel, under the nuptial canopy, "It is not so in our place, to give the younger before the elder" (Genesis 29:26), as representing the normative custom to be followed by parents in marrying off their daughters. Perhaps we ought even refer to this villain as Rabbenu Laban!
I would submit that Laban himself, his character and personality, is very much like his name implies: "white" on the outside, the Hebrew word lavan meaning white usually a metaphor for what is pure and good, but very much the conniving, venal Knave on the inside; indeed, the very letters of the name lavan, when read from left to right, spell out the word naval which means a despicable scoundrel.
The facts are that a superficial study of Laban's actions vis a vis Rebecca his sister, Leah his daughter and Jacob's wives and children could all point towards a well-meaning father desperately concerned for the welfare of his family: Laban wants to make sure that Rebecca herself truly wishes to link her destiny with Abraham's family, he is anxious to marry off his elder daughter who might well be doomed to spinsterhood without his taking a little advantage of Jacob's love for Rachel, and he wants to protect his children and grandchildren from the physical danger at the hands of Esau and the economic uncertainty of a difficult terrain which they might very well experience in the land of Israel. We might even say that Laban's motto is "family uber alles, the ends justify the means when it comes to one's children and grandchildren." And from this perspective, we can well understand why so many marriage customs are indeed derived from Laban.
When we delve a bit deeper, however, we begin to see that even in these instances of seeming familial concern, Laban's true motivations may have been his own selfish and materialistic profit. When he suggests asking Rebecca's opinion after he has already offered her to Eliezer ("Behold, Rebecca is before you, take her and go" Genesis 24:51) and has already received a generous dowry of gold and silver for her (Genesis 24:53), his sudden interest in her consent suspiciously suggests a ploy for an additional dowry. His deception under the marriage canopy was likely perpetrated in order for him to extract another seven years of free labor out of Jacob rather than out of sincere concern for the hapless Leah - who suffers shame and degradation from a marriage to a husband who does not love her. And indeed, his daughters themselves declare, "Were we not considered by (our father) as strangers, since he (virtually) sold us (to you)" (Genesis 31:15). Apparently the profit motive was never far from Laban's grasping hand and scheming heart, despite the spin of familial concern he tries to place upon his actions.
I would further argue that the custom of a badeken and the blessing over an engagement is derived from Laban because they represent the very antithesis of what Laban stands for - indeed, the very paradox within his personality. The Yiddish word badeken means to cover, and the ceremony is literally the covering of the bride's face with a veil. The Hebrew badok means to search or investigate - and the groom investigates the face of his bride before it is covered in order to ascertain that he is getting the right bride, not falling into a laban-like trap. The sacred Zohar, however, links the Hebrew badok with the Hebrew dabok, the very same letters switched around to form a word which means cleave, as in the verse: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). The Hebrew word for cleave, dabok, refers to a specifically emotional, spiritual and intellectual bonding, a meeting of hearts, souls and minds, a joining of destinies. The groom covers his bride's face, and in effect declares: "our initial attraction may well have been physical, but it has become much deeper than that, it is truly a cleaving together. I hereby cover your face and still announce my undying love for you, for your inner and most beautiful self." Laban, the man of the outside, paradoxically teaches the profound importance of the inside.
Laban is also the source for the blessing over an engagement: "Blessed art thou O Lord our G-d King of the Universe who has sanctified us with His Commandments, and commanded us concerning illicit sexual relationships; He has forbidden us relations with our engaged brides and has permitted us relations with our married wives. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who has sanctified His nation Israel thru the nuptial canopy and engagements." This is truly an amazing blessing. Sanctity involves self-control, commitment. An engaged couple has total obligations to each other - but without the privilege of a sexual relationship. Engagement within the Jewish tradition expresses giving without getting personal commitment without physical advantage. This is the unique Jewish introduction to the selfless love involved in marriage - and is truly a counterpoint to the grasping, greedy Laban.
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