This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Miriam Jaffe
There are different ways of using speech to communicate. It can be used in a straightforward way, to convey the ideas expressed in the words. If I say “I am short,” I am probably conveying the information that I am short. But speech can also convey concepts through tone, word choice, or simply the decision to speak at all. For instance, if someone I know claims that they have no short friends, and I respond “I am short,” I may be communicating that I think they are a liar, or that I want to be their friend.
When Laban chases after Jacob, God warns him not to speak to Jacob “from good to bad” (Gen 31:24). The fact that even good speech is warned against indicates that Laban uses speech as more than straightforward communication. The narrative bears this out.
Lavan approaches Jacob with an intense complaint: You stole my heart, myself, and my daughters like war captives, without giving me so much as a chance to kiss them goodbye. Laban’s words evoke sympathy, until you remember that those same daughters don’t consider themselves welcome in their father’s house (v. 14-16). Eventually Laban’s complaint reaches its final point: “Why did you steal my gods?”, which isn’t literarily congruent with what came before. If his gods are so important, why is his language here so flat? On the flip side: if his gods aren’t important, why end anticlimactically?
Laban seems less interested in content than in being able to portray himself as the injured party. That’s why he uses the dramatic language, and asks “Why did you steal x from me?!” It doesn’t matter what x is. What matters is that x is his, and that x was stolen from him. To paraphrase verse 43 “mine, mine, mine and everything the light touches is mine,” and verses 26-31 “you stole this, you stole that, and you stole something else.”
In this case Laban is an influence on Jacob. Jacob’s response to Laban is all about victimhood – how he was a good worker for so many years, but was always being cheated or accused of stealing.
Rashi understands G-d’s warning to Laban not to speak “from good to bad” as meaning “what is good for Laban is bad for Jacob.”
And Laban’s influence on Jacob, does indeed wind up bad for Jacob. In his grand statement of personal innocence, he anticipates – causes? his wife’s early death (v. 32) The word he uses asking Laban to prove him wrong, “hak’ker,” is used against Jacob himself as evidence of his son’s death. In his treaty with Laban, Jacob agrees not to cross the gal or the matzaivah (the pile of stones, or the special standing stone), while Laban just can’t cross the gal (v. 52).
When Laban makes a treaty that the two will never meet again, it’s about them not meeting “for bad,” as opposed to god’s formulation “good or bad.” It seems like he still thinks maybe at some point he can get the upper hand by doing something to Jacob, which he’ll probably justify as “good” if you ask him. And he does, at least according to the Midrash Tanchuma on this week’s parsha, which identifies Bilam as Laban crossing the place of the pile of stones in numbers 22:25. But in this case God doesn’t let him go against his word, which Bilam admits in 24:13 אִם-יִתֶּן-לִי בָלָק מְלֹא בֵיתוֹ, כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב–לֹא אוּכַל לַעֲבֹר אֶת-פִּי יְהוָה, לַעֲשׂוֹת טוֹבָה אוֹ רָעָה מִלִּבִּי: אֲשֶׁר-יְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֹתוֹ אֲדַבֵּר.
“Were Balak to give me his houseful of gold and silver – I would not be able to transgress the mouth of G-d, to do good or evil out of my heart.”
Miriam Jaffe (SBM 2011) is a computer programmer in New York City.