In Parashat Vayetze, Lavan and Yaakov seem to hammer out a work agreement that will allow Yaakov to marry Rachel after 7 years, but Lavan gives him Leah instead. Yaakov works for seven more years, and then an additional six – and finally flees, taking his wife and children (and flocks) with him.
In Chapter 31 of Genesis, Lavan confronts Yaakov, and then Yaakov confronts Lavan.
Lavan first suggests that if Yaakov hadn’t fled behind his back, he would have sent them off with musical accompaniment. When he asks why Yaakov did this to him, Yaakov says that he believed Lavan would take Rachel and Leah away from Yaakov.
Tellingly, Lavan claims that everything rightfully belongs to him – Yaakov’s wives, children, and animals -but reluctantly concedes them. Why does Lavan claim this? Is he at all justified in his claim, or is he merely causing trouble?
A legal section in the Torah may provide us with some clues. If we compare the laws of the “Hebrew Slave” to the Lavan-Yaakov dialogue and narrative, we find another angle to this story.
Was Yaakov Lavan’s employee, or his (Hebrew) slave?
In Chapter 21 of the book of Shemot (Exodus), the time period under discussion is seven years. That includes six years of work – and “in the seventh” the slave shall go free:
If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. (Exodus 21:2; JPS 1917 trans.)
There is an interesting wrinkle in the situation: If the master gives his temporary slave a wife during the years of slavery, the wife and children stay behind when the slave is freed in the seventh year. The slave, however, has the option to stay behind with them and continue his employment permanently:
(2) If thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve; and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. (3) If he come in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he be married, then his wife shall go out with him. (4) If his master give him a wife, and she bear him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.
(5) But if the servant shall plainly say: I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free; (6) then his master shall bring him unto God, and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever.
Yaakov worked for Lavan a total of 20 years – 14 for his daughters (seven each) and six for the flocks. He may have believed himself to be working as an employee, but what if Lavan sees it as slavery? Has Lavan engineered a situation where, to all outsiders, he has a Hebrew slave (a descendant of Avraham “ha-Ivri” – the Hebrew), and has given him not one but two wives who have given birth during Yaakov’s work term.
When Yaakov wishes to leave, Lavan may appear to have the rights to his wives and children – and, possibly, his flocks, Especially if others were not aware of the conditions and terms of Yaakov’s agreement). (Even the idea of switching Leah for Rachel may have appeared to be within Lavan’s rights as a master to assign his slave a wife. He may take Yaakov’s preference into account, but perhaps it would really be up to him if he is the master and Yaakov is the slave.)
Sure enough, as was mentioned above, when Lavan angrily asks why Yaakov did not inform him that he was taking his family and leaving, Yaakov responds that he believed that Lavan would have forcibly kept Rachel and Leah from going with Yaakov.
Why would Yaakov believe this? Perhaps because Lavan had some basis for claiming that this was an agreement where Yaakov sold himself into slavery.
Lavan claims that he would have given Yaakov a grand sending-off. This, too, is mentioned in the laws of the Hebrew Slave in Chapter 15 of the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy):
If thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, he shall serve thee six years; and in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. (13) And when thou lettest him go free from thee, thou shalt not let him go empty; (14) thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy threshing-floor, and out of thy winepress; of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him…(18) It shall not seem hard unto thee, when thou lettest him go free from thee; for to the double of the hire of a hireling hath he served thee six years; and the LORD thy God will bless thee in all that thou doest.
Lavan did throw a feast – “mishteh,” which implies the drinking of wine, at the end of Yaakov’s first term of employment, after Yaakov asks for Rachel now that his work term has ended (Genesis 29:22).
Lavan had originally acknowledged Yaakov as his “flesh and blood” and even, perhaps, as his “brother” (Genesis 29). But does Lavan really let Yaakov go, graciously or otherwise? First, Lavan switches Leah for Rachel and manipulates Yaakov into working for seven more years. Thereafter, he indeed acknowledges, as per Devarim 15:14 and 15:18, that God has blessed Lavan on Yaakov’s account (Genesis 30:27).
But then Lavan presses Yaakov to continue working for him. As we find out later, in Yaakov’s angry words toward Lavan, it is for a period of six years. If we had not noticed resemblances between the Hebrew Slave and Yaakov’s “employment” by Lavan, we should pay attention now. Lavan agrees that Yaakov’s salary will come in the form of the speckled and spotted sheep that come from his flocks (giving of one’s flocks to the former slave is another element mentioned in Devarim 15).
Yaakov becomes very successful, but Lavan and his sons begin to exhibit ill will toward Yaakov. Yaakov realizes it is time to leave, but feels the need to do so in secret. When he confers with Rachel and Leah, away from the ears of Lavan, they invoke references to slavery – they feel that they have been sold by their father (Genesis 31:14)!
They ostensibly know their father’s nature and how he sees the world.
It is no wonder that there are so many comparisons between Yaakov’s time with Lavan – attempted escape of a three-day journey (and catching up after a seven-day journey), crossing a body of water, and ultimate freedom after the intervention of God, with a sacrifice on a mountain at the end.
The Pesach Haggadah begins with the idea that Pharaoh kept the Israelites as slaves, but that Lavan tried to uproot everything from the start. He wished to keep his own “Hebrew slave” (eved ivri) in perpetuity, but Yaakov was freed, with the help of God. His descendants could look at the laws and at this narrative, and learn from Lavan what not to do as an employer.
Lavan did not give graciously, or pleasantly allow his worker to leave at the end of his term. Instead, he was duplicitous numerous times and was going to prevent Yaakov from leaving – if it had not been for God, the ultimate Redeemer.