Project Genesis

Midrash and Laban Wanted to Destroy Us

Question: I once heard that many Midrashim were actually written down with political situations of the time in mind and are not just ‘fairy tales’ if you will. My question is what was the political or cultural background behind the paragraph of “Tzay U’lmad” (Lavan the Aramean), in the Pesach Haggadah, found right after the paragraph of “Ve’he She’amda.” I heard that it had something to do with Egypt controlling Israel in the second century BCE but I am not sure if this is accurate information.

Answer: Hi! Thank you for your interesting question.

“Many Midrashim were actually written down with political situations of the time in mind and are not just ‘fairy tales’.”

I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to answer the question the way you asked it; for that you will have to seek elsewhere. I do not believe that Midrashim had political situations in mind, nor do I believe that they are fairy tales. The Midrashim are part of our understanding of the deeper meanings of the Torah. They are often presented in parable form, but it is still for us to try to plumb the depths that they present.

Since you mentioned the Midrash of “tzei ul’mad”, I began to think about what it is trying to convey. I hope you’ll forgive me if I give you some of my impressions, though it is not what you requested.

The Midrash says that in every generation, our enemies rise up to destroy us. As evidence, it brings the case of Lavan, and says that Pharaoh only wanted to destroy the boys, but Lavan tried to uproot all.

Question: Where do we see that Lavan wanted to do that? We could read all of Parshas Vayeitzei and not know it. You see that we can be quite unaware of what our enemies are planning for us.

A more careful reading of Parshas Vayeitzei might give us an answer. Lavan may not have planned to actually kill us. His plan was to “uproot us” from our status: To enslave us, to make us part of his possessions. When Ya’akov was making him wealthy, he was happy. Whenever Ya’akov tried to actually leave, though, he found a way to stop him. He knew that Ya’akov was the source of his success! “I have divined it: G-d has blessed me on your behalf!”

Listen to his later words to Ya’akov, after Ya’akov claims that everything he has was honestly earned, that not a single penny of Lavan’s is in his possession. Lavan doesn’t quite agree: “[No!] The daughters are my daughters, the sons are my sons, the flocks are my flocks, and everything that you see is mine!”

You have to hand it to the man; he didn’t think small. If he would have his way, there would be no people Israel. They would be his possessions instead. He knew they were the source of blessing; all the blessings of the world would come to him – through them.

Our sages are not saying that every non-Jew has such an attitude; of course, they don’t. They are saying that this is one of the possible approaches that the non-Jewish world may use to deal with G-d’s nation.

See the Midrash that describes the three advisors of Pharaoh: Bil’am, Yisro, and Iyov. Each of them represents a different approach to dealing with the “Jewish problem”. Egypt didn’t only listen to Bil’am – there were earlier periods where it was closer to the other two approaches. Only at the end did it chose Bil’am’s approach – and that led to its destruction. [And see the Targum Yerushalmi on Parshas Balak, that says that Bil’am was the same as Lavan. They represent the same attitude.]

There will always be some that choose his approach, and be they known or unknown we will always need G-d’s help against them.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

No Follow-ups »

No published follow-up questions.

We respond to every follow-up question submitted, but only publish selected ones. In order to be considered for publication, questions must be on-topic, polite, and address ideas rather than personalities.


Powered by WordPress