Volume XII, Number 7
7 Kislev 5758
December 7, 1997
The story of Yaakov and Lavan alludes to the dual causes of
anti-semitism, writes R' Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin z"l (19th
century). First, Lavan and his sons, like our own opponents,
were jealous of Yaakov's material success and were convinced that
Yaakov had obtained his wealth by cheating them (Lavan and his
sons) out of their own property. [See Bereishit 31:1]
In addition, Lavan resented the religious truth that Yaakov
represented. Lavan said to Yaakov (31:29), "It is in my power to
do you (plural) harm, and the G-d of your fathers addressed me
last night . . ." To whom was Lavan referring when he used the
plural pronoun? Certainly not to Yaakov's family -- Lavan's own
daughters and grandchildren! Rather, hidden in Lavan's statement
was his agenda: "To do you harm and the G-d of your fathers."
This is what the Sages meant when they wrote in the Pesach
Haggadah, "Lavan sought to uproot everything." "Everything," and
not just Yaakov's material wealth!
The Torah states (Devarim 26:5), "An Aramean tried to destroy
my father. He descended to Egypt . . ." What do the acts of the
Aramean (Lavan) have to do with our father Yaakov's going down to
Egypt? We may learn the answer from the gemara which states,
"The Jews should have been exiled [after the destruction of the
First Temple] to Aram, but because the Arameans are too cruel, G-
d exiled the Jews to Bavel." Throughout the period before the
Destruction, the Jews' primary nemesis was not Bavel, but Aram
(as described in the Book of Melachim). When it came time to
exile the Jews, however, Hashem chose to send them to Bavel; had
the exile been to Aram, not one Jew would have survived.
Yaakov was exiled to Aram, and the Aramean (Lavan) tried to
destroy him. That is why Yaakov descended to Egypt to complete
(She'er Yisrael, ch. 1, printed at the end of Chumash
Ha'emek Davar, Vol III)
An Astonishing Midrash
"The eyes of Leah were tender" (29:17) therefore it says
(Yirmiyah 31:15-16): "Restrain your voice from weeping . . .
for their is hope for you ultimately . . . and the children
will return to their borders.
The verse quoted from Yirmiyah speaks to Rachel. What
connection does it have to Leah? R' Yehonatan Eyebschutz z"l
(died 1764) explains:
The gemara asks: The Torah does not speak disparagingly of
animals (see Bereishit 7:8); how, then, can it speak
disparagingly of Leah's eyes? The gemara answers that the Torah
is praising Leah. Her eyes were tender because she cried at the
thought that, as the elder daughter, she might be expected to
marry Esav, the elder son of her aunt Rivkah.
Chazal say that in the merit of these tears, Leah earned the
right to be buried with Yaakov. This meant, however, that
Rachel, Yaakov's favorite wife, could not be buried with him.
The above verses from Yirmiyah are Hashem's consolation to
Rachel: "I want you to lie by the side of the road so that you
can pray for your children when they are taken into exile. Do
not cry endlessly, however, for there is hope. The children
shall return to their borders."
The Character of Lavan
In an undated letter to his son, R' Simcha Zissel Ziv z"l (died
1898) pointed out how great Lavan's spiritual potential was and
how low he stooped nevertheless.
Lavan must have been a great man, for the Torah mentions his
blessings not once, but twice. Before his sister Rivkah left to
marry Yitzchak, he blessed her (24:60), "May you be myriads of
thousands." And, the Torah records that he blessed his daughters
before parting from them (32:1).
Lavan said to Yaakov (31:29), "It is in my power to do you
harm." And, since Hashem had to appear to Lavan in a dream and
warn him not to harm Yaakov, we can assume that Lavan could have
harmed our Patriarch. This also indicates Lavan's greatness.
[Presumably, only a great person could harm Yaakov.]
Nevertheless, Lavan demeaned himself in ways that he never
would have had he known that the Torah would record them. These
statements reveal his true character. He said to Yaakov, for
example (29:14), "Nevertheless, you are my flesh and blood!" At
first glance, this is a praiseworthy sentiment, but what did
Lavan mean by the word, "Nevertheless"? He meant, "I would have
preferred that my relatives bring me gifts; nevertheless, you are
my flesh and blood, so I will take you in." (Even so, Rashi
notes, Lavan immediately put Yaakov to work as a shepherd.)
Lavan was great enough to acknowledge to Yaakov (30:27),
"Hashem blessed me because of you." The same Lavan said (31:43),
"The sheep are my sheep, and everything that you see is mine."
Lavan observed the laws of family purity even more strictly than
we do (see Ramban to 31:35), yet he frantically searched for his
What is the lesson that we can learn from Lavan? It is: "One
deficiency can ruin a great deal of good" (Kohelet 9:18).
Lavan's greatness did not save him from falling to a very low
(Ohr Rashaz No. 143;
also printed in Chochmah U'mussar No. 106)
The verse from Kohelet quoted above can also be translated,
"One sinner can ruin a great deal of good." R' Simcha Zissel
writes: This is why Chazal say, "Distance yourself from a bad
To what may this be likened? To one person who carries a
deadly illness. All alone, he can wipe out an entire city. The
same is true of a person who is spiritually ill.
(Chochmah U'mussar No. 231)
"He lay down in that place." (28:11)
Rashi writes: "In that place he lay down, but for the prior 14
years he did not lay down at night for he was studying Torah in
the house of [his ancestor] Ever."
R' Michel Barenbaum shlita (mashgiach of Mesivta Tifereth
Yerushalayim in New York) asks: How is it possible for the Torah
to omit such a detail regarding Yaakov' life? He answers that
the Torah is teaching us Yaakov's greatness. To him it was
nothing to study Torah for 14 years without lying down in bed.
To the contrary, it was obvious to Yaakov that one cannot go to
the world of a Lavan without such preparation.
We are taught in Pirkei Avot: "If you have studied much Torah,
do not be impressed with yourself; for that reason you were
created!" A Jew must recognize that the goal of his existence is
King David said (Tehilim 119:162), "I rejoice over Your word
like one who finds a great treasure." The Chafetz Chaim
explained: If one stood before a treasure of gems knowing that he
had only a limited amount of time to gather the stones, would he
waste a moment? This is how David felt, and everyone should
feel, about Torah study.
R' Nissim ben Yaakov z"l
("Rav Nissim Gaon")
died approx. 1050
R' Nissim was born and lived in Kairouan, Tunisia. He was a
disciple of his father, to whom the famous Iggeret R' Sherirah
Gaon had been addressed, and also of R' Chushiel. (The
Iggeret/Epistle was a letter from the Babylonian rosh yeshiva
listing the chain of tradition of the Oral Law from the beginning
of the sages of mishnah until his time.) R' Nissim himself
maintained an active correspondence with R' Hai Gaon (939-1038),
the son of R' Sherirah.
R' Nissim also corresponded with R' Shmuel Hanaggid in Spain,
and transmitted R' Hai's teachings to him. (Later, R' Nissim's
daughter married R' Shmuel's son, R' Yosef.) Some consider R'
Nissim, R' Shmuel and R' Nissim's colleague in Kairouan, R'
Chananel ben R' Chushiel, to constitute the first generation of
the era known as the "Rishonim." (Meaning "Early Ones," this
title denotes the 500-year period between the decline of the
Babylonian academies and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.)
R' Nissim is best known today for his work Hamaftei'ach/The
Index, the surviving part of which is printed under the title
"Rav Nissim Gaon" in the margin of the first three volumes of the
standard Talmud edition. The purpose of this work, R' Nissim
explains in the introduction, is to cross-reference Talmudic
statements to elsewhere in the Talmud where they are explained
more fully. In his introduction, printed at the front of
Masechet Berachot, R' Nissim identifies 50 categories of out-of-
context Talmudic statements (i.e., where a sage's statement is
found in the Talmud in other than its logical place). Another
part of the introduction explains why it was fair on G-d's part
to give the Torah to one nation out of all of mankind. (Note
that the title, "Rav Nissim Gaon," is a misnomer, because R'
Nissim was not technically a gaon, i.e., a Babylonian sage. Only
more recently has the term come to mean "genius," as in "Vilna
R' Nissim also wrote other works which have been lost, but
which are quoted by later sages. According to some, R' Nissim
was the teacher of the "Rif" -- R' Yitzchak Alfasi. R' Nissim
should not be confused with his namesake who wrote a commentary
on Rif's work. (Sources: The Artscroll Rishonim p.57; Hakdamat R'
Nissim Gaon; Shem Hagedolim)