Vayetze: of parents and grandparents
Ya’akov followed his father’s instruction and headed for the home of his uncle, Lavan.
As he arrived in Haran, he asked the shepherds that he met:
הַיְדַעְתֶּם אֶת־לָבָן בֶּן־נָחוֹר וַיֹּאמְרוּ יָדָעְנוּ׃ וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם הֲשָׁלוֹם לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ שָׁלוֹם (בראשית כט:ה-ו)
“Do you know Lavan the son of Nahor?” And they said, “Yes, we do.” He said to them, “Is it well (literally: is there peace) with him?” They said, “peace.”(Bereishit 29:5-6)
But Ya’akov seems to have erred. Lavan was the son of Betuel who was himself the son of Nahor. Why did Ya’akov ascribe Lavan’s paternity to his grandfather rather than his father?
Some of the various approaches in the commentators can be grouped together, as explaining that even though Nahor was the grandfather, there were good reasons why Ya’akov should have called Lavan “ben Nahor”.
The Abarbanel (15th century Portugal) suggests that since Nahor was patriarch of that branch of the dynasty, and the brother of Avraham, Ya’akov’s own grandfather, it was logical that Ya’akov should see Nahor as the key source from which the rest of the family came.
Ramban (12th century Israel) also posits that Nahor was the head of the family, and was a more honourable figure than Betuel, as evidenced by Lavan swearing an oath in the name of the god of Nahor (Bereishit 31:53). Ramban suggests further that Betuel may have been lacking in ethical behaviour (an idea found also in Midrashim) and therefore Ya’akov did want to identify Lavan with Betuel, but only with his own grandfather’s brother.
The relative ethical qualities of Betuel and Nahor inspires the Kli Yekar (16th century Bohemia) to explain homiletically the conversation between Ya’akov and the shepherds. Ya’akov would not have needed to ask them if they knew Lavan, because naturally Lavan’s neighbour would have done so. Rather when he asked them about “Lavan ben Nahor” his true inquiry was whether Lavan was to be compared to his grandfather Nahor, who (according to this narrative) was a man of righteousness and integrity, or did he take after his father, Betuel, a perpetrator of various misdeeds.
When the shepherds replied “we know him” (i.e. as Lavan ben Nahor) they affirmed that Lavan was righteous like his grandfather. However Ya’akov’s next question revealed this to be false. If Lavan were righteous then he would not be at peace with his townspeople who were known to be evil. When the shepherds said that there is “peace with him”, that confirmed that Lavan was indeed of the same low moral character as his father and neighbours.
The Terumat Hadeshen (15th century Austria) learns from this incident a halachic rule. If a man’s father is an apostate, then he is called to the Torah then to be called to the Torah as “son of (his father’s name)” would be an embarrassment. Instead he is called up as “son of (his grandfather’s name)
Rabbeinu Bachya (14th century Spain) takes a different approach. Calling Lavan “ben Nahor” was not, he says, a misnomer, because of the Talmudic principle of “בני בנים הרי הם כבנים” - grandchildren are like children (Kiddushin 4a). Thus Nahor’s grandson (Lavan) could be legitimately referred to as “son of Nahor”.
No less a figure than Avraham employed the same device. When Avimelech accused Avraham of falsehood by claiming that Sarah was his sister, Avraham replied:
וְגַם־אָמְנָה אֲחֹתִי בַת־אָבִי הִוא . . . (בראשית פרק כ:יב)
And besides, she is in truth my sister, my father’s daughter . . . (Bereishit 20:12)
Yet Sarah was not Avraham’s father’s daughter, but his granddaughter (being the daughter of Haran, Avraham’s brother). Avraham is not seeking to justify himself against charges of lying, by uttering another untruth; rather he is employing the principle of “grandchildren are like children”.
The Torah Temima (20th century Lithuania) brings a support from the Torah itself for this rule.Bemidbar 10:29 refers to “Hovav, the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moshe’s father-in-law”. Trying to unscramble this mixture of obscure names, Rashi states that Hovav is another name for Yitro, which makes Reuel the father of Yitro. But in Shemot 2:18 we read that the daughters of Yitro spoke to “Reuel their father”. This is therefore an example of “grandchildren are like children”. (See Ibn Ezra on Bemidbar 10:29 for a different approach).
A seemingly insignificant comment by Rashi suggests yet another approach. When Avraham’s servant visited the house of Betuel to propose marriage between Yitzhak and Rivka, the Torah records
וַיַּעַן לָבָן וּבְתוּאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵה׳ יָצָא הַדָּבָר לֹא נוּכַל דַּבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ רַע אוֹ־טוֹב׃ (בראשית פרק כד:נ)
Then Lavan and Betuel answered, “The matter has come from Hashem; we cannot speak to you bad or good. (Bereishit 24:50)
On this, Rashi points out:
ויען לבן ובתואל - רשע היה וקפץ להשיב לפני אביו:
Lavan and Betuel answered: He (Lavan) was a wicked person and so rushed in to answer before his father.
Rashi is not just observing the audacity of a son to speak before a father. He is revealing to us a fundamental character trait of Lavan, that he lacks respect for his parent.
This might explain why, with one exception, the Torah never describes Lavan as “ben Betuel”. Invariably he is לבן הארמי - Lavan the Amarean, as if his peoplehood has eclipsed his family connections. Hence Ya’akov too disconnects Lavan from his father and calls him “ben Nahor”. (The one exception is Bereishit 25:5, which tells of how Ya’akov fulfils the common of his father Yitzhak, who did understand the value of respect for parents).
Just as he breaks the link with his own father, he does the same with his own children. Rachel and Leah, are clear that Lavan has abandoned them. When Ya’akov asks their permission to flee from Lavan, they reply
וַתַּעַן רָחֵל וְלֵאָה וַתֹּאמַרְנָה לוֹ הַעוֹד לָנוּ חֵלֶק וְנַחֲלָה בְּבֵית אָבִינוּ׃ הֲלוֹא נָכְרִיּוֹת נֶחְשַׁבְנוּ לוֹ כִּי מְכָרָנוּ וַיֹּאכַל גַּם־אָכוֹל אֶת־כַּסְפֵּנוּ׃(בראשית לא:יד-טו)ָ
Then Rachel and Leah answered him, saying, “Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house? Surely, he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and has used up our purchase price. (Bereishit 31:14-15)
Lavan’s philosophy is distilled into the chilling words with which he finally takes leave of Ya’akov:
וַיַּעַן לָבָן וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל־יַעֲקֹב הַבָּנוֹת בְּנֹתַי וְהַבָּנִים בָּנַי . . . (בראשית לא:מג)ָ
Lavan answered and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children. . . (Bereishit 31:43)
Calling his grandchildren “my children” could be a term of endearment, or an ironic reference back to the principle of “grandchildren are like children”. But given all that we know of Lavan, we can suggest that he is saying “the children are my children - and not yours”. By luring Ya’akov to stay in Haran year after year, by swapping daughters to create dysfunction in the family, he aims to separate Ya’akov from his own children and from his own parents, leaving him a rootless, fruitless, atomised individual, just like Lavan himself.
(Note that when Ya’akov himself claims that his grandchildren - Ephraim and Menashe - are his children in Bereishit 48:5, he does so in a way that does not deny that Yosef is their father.)
Ya’akov escapes. Having been desperate to raise a family (see Bereisihit 29:21 and Rashi there) and equally passionate that all of his children follow in his ways (see Rashi on Bereishit 28:21), he finally succeeds in taking children away from a hostile and alien environment and thereby establishes that they are indeed “his” progeny.
And when he reunites with Esav, who sees the children and asks
Who are these?
as if to say: “on what basis do you claim that they belong to you? Are they not citizens of the world?”, Ya’akov’s answer is clear:
הַיְלָדִים אֲשֶׁר־חָנַן אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת־עַבְדֶּךָ׃ (בראשית לג:ה)
The children with whom God has favored your servant.
For Ya’akov, the archetypal Jewish parent whose example inspires every subsequent generation, our children are given to us as a divine gift. We cannot abdicate our role, or let the Lavans of the world claim our children as their own. To nurture and to raise them is our privilege and our sacred responsibility.