The Torah is always very economical with its words. We have very little biographical detail about any of the patriarchs, of Moses growing up in the household of Pharoah.
We are introduced to Abraham when he is 70 years old and the years of Moses as a young man until he is 80 years old are not mentioned at all.
Yet we have, relatively speaking, a massive amount of text in the Torah describing day-to-day interactions between Laban, Jacob (his son-in-law) and his daughters Rachel and Leah.
Why is there so much detail about Laban?
Laban is a respected member of his community and has great concern about proper etiquette regarding the marriage of his daughters. He is a shrewd businessman and gives his son-in-law Jacob a job. Laban doesn’t appear to be such a terrible father-in-law.
But, close examination of the text in Genesis indicates something different.
Laban furiously chases his daughters and grandchildren after Jacob and his family run from him.
When he is finally about to reach them and sets up his overnight camp, God communicates with Laben while he sleeps and commands him to say nothing to Jacob, “not anything good, certainly not anything evil.”
The next morning, when Laban reaches Jacob and his family, he indicates that “he could wipe them all out,” but God spoke to him last night about Jacob, so he will refrain.
So the truth is that he did want to destroy Jacob and his whole family, but he controlled himself because God appeared to him in a dream. On the surface, however, we really don’t see much of a threat from Laban, even though Jacob understood the danger that his father-in-law posed to him and his family. Were it not for the Torah telling us about God’s conversation during Laban’s dream, we would have no concept of the real danger that he did present to Jacob and his family.
We can learn a few things from this. God’s protection of Jacob and us — his descendants — is not always so obvious when everything goes well.
More significantly, the Torah is teaching us an important insight about the nature of evil people. They are not born as devilish creatures; they are like the rest of us, and they have the same wishes, desires and goals as all ordinary people.
The evil that Laban exemplifies — of wanting to destroy the family of Jacob — which was the fledgling nation of
Israel, did not develop overnight. It is a result of the day-to-day decisions and choices that Laban made over the years.
The Torah is showing us that the greatest evil can come, and does come, from ordinary people making choices over an extended period of time that lead them to the path of evil. Ordinary human beings who made wicked choices perpetrated the greatest evils in human history.
The positive corollary to this lesson is that creating that which is good does not require angels; great good can come from ordinary people as well. So let us all get to working on it.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)