Whether it is Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Harvey Keitel’s character in Reservoir Dogs, or the Casino Royale Bond villain, there’s something about naming a bad guy Mr. White. You might think it is modern cynicism that gives us the insight to be skeptical of anyone claiming to be pure as snow, but evil in the guise of good is nothing new. In fact, one of the earliest antagonists in the Torah is named Lavan, literally Hebrew for White.
Biography of the White Man
Lavan is Avraham’s nephew who we first meet in Chaya Sarah. Eliezer is sent to search for a wife for Yitzchok and finds Rivka. When she brings Eliezer home, he’s greeted by the seemingly pious Lavan. His first words in the Torah?
“Come, you who are blessed of Hashem, what are you standing outside?” (Bereishis 24:31).
Lavan’s first utterances invoke the name of God. But as the Torah mentions just before this exalted attitude, “When he had seen the nose ring and bracelets on the hands of his sister [which Eliezer had given as presents]” he then ushers him in with such kindness. Right from the get go, we see Lavan’s double faced nature.
Then in parsha Vayeitzei, Yaakov goes to work and lives with Lavan to find a wife. He falls in love with Rochol and agrees to work for Lavan for 7 years before marrying her. Then on the night of the wedding, Lavan pulls a switcheroo and tricks Yaakov into marrying Leah. This is the first of many deceptions that will eventually force Yaakov to collect his family, his flocks, and all his things and run away in the middle of the night. Lavan will chase him and catch up to him. But even when Yaakov sees Lavan for the wicked trickster that he is, Lavan will still evoke holiness, never letting up.
The White Devil
When we read the Haggadah at Passover, it says that, “Lavan was worse than Pharaoh because while Pharaoh only wanted to destroy the male children, Lavan wanted to uproot everything.” But where the Haggadah condemns him because of the scope of his ambitions, I think there are bigger reasons why he is labeled as the worst villain of the Jewish people.
What is more likely to be a bigger threat to a struggling Jew? A fervent atheist, a Catholic Priest, or a Jews for Jesus Rabbi? If you said the last one, you’re right. Where the atheist and the Priest may be passionate with their arguments, the Jew for Jesus knows how to pervert familiar territory. Lavan clearly has an aptitude when it comes to holy matters. So because of that he confuses the lines between right and wrong. Where an enemy comes at you head on, a Lavan comes at you once you’ve let your guard down. And unlike the clear enemy who will make a big attack, a Lavan will twist values just a little bit at a time until you’ve completely given up your morals without you even realizing it. Where a Pharaoh will try to destroy you in a direct fight, a Lavan will undermine you from within.
Now when you recognize the Lavan for who they are, their next tactic is to attack the righteous. When Lavan catches up with Yaakov at the end of parsha Vayeitzei he says the following;
Why did you flee so stealthily? You robbed me and did not tell me. I would have sent you away with joy and with song, with drum and harp. You did not let me kiss my grandsons and daughters. Now see how foolishly you acted. It is within my power of my hand to harm you, but the God of your father spoke to me last night… (Bereishis 31: 27-29
Quite a diatribe. First he plays ignorant and innocent (he knows exactly why Yaakov fled), he accuses him of theft, claims he would have honored him, acts hurt, and finally threatens him but, “Only because I’m such a Godly person, I’ll stay my hand.” When a Lavan is confronted that they double down by pretending to be the victim then attacking the righteous person.
The Gift of Truth
The Rabbis say that Yaakov was given the gift of truth by Hashem. By saying it was a gift it means that that attribute is something he wouldn’t have been able to get on his own. Avraham saw the disastrous effects of idolatry in the home and from that came to a profound understanding of Hashem through his own deduction. Yitzchok learned with Avraham first hand and, in ways, came to a deeper understanding of that truth having lived through the events of the Akeida. It takes profound clarity to not only give up your life for a cause, but then at the last minute being saved by the very thing you were being sacrificed for.
But Yaakov grew up in a house where his model for truth, Yitzchok, favored Esav, a wicked person. No matter how much Yaakov tried to do right, he couldn’t sway his father until he had to resort to deception. What a tremendously confusing perspective to come from. Because of that, Yaakov needed Hashem to give him a special gift of truth. So that’s why Yaakov has to live with Lavan, a man who can say something so false in such a way he has you believing him totally. Within the bedrock of that confusion, Yaakov has to learn how to own his gift of truth, then act on it, and rid himself and his family of it.
That’s where we are today. It’s been said that Yaakov is a model for the Jewish people (his other name is Israel, as we’ll see in next week’s parsha). It’s this exact struggle, being at the mercy of a whole world that’s steeped in the spirit of Lavan, that we must learn to overcome. The news, politics, the economy, they all thrive on confusion. Why do you think legal documents are so tremendously complicated?
But as this confusion continues to swell, the one thing we do have is the Torah. It’s from Torah we learn distinctions, nuance, connection with something bigger than ourselves, and ultimately direction and clarity. Some may criticize the Torah for being unmalleable. But in a world going through such rapid change (gender norms, the TV industry, what is acceptable in politically correct public discourse, the landscape of our political system) maybe a static bedrock might just be the anchor we need to see through a whole world of Lavan.