Thursday, November 11, 2010


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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Alice had volunteered to bake a cake for the Ladies' Group but forgot to do it until the last minute. She remembered on the morning of the bake sale and panicked. After rummaging through cabinets, she found an angel food cake mix and quickly made it while drying her hair, dressing, and helping her son pack up for school.

When Alice took the cake from the oven, the center had dropped flat and the cake was horribly disfigured. She said, "Oh dear, there isn't enough time to bake another cake." This cake was important to Alice because she wanted to fit in with her new community of friends.

Being innovative, she looked around the house for something to build up the center of the cake. She took a roll of bathroom paper and plunked it in and then covered it with icing. Ironically the finished product looked beautiful.

Before she left the house to drop the cake by the bake sale and head for work, Alice woke her daughter Amanda. She gave her some money and specific instructions to be at the bake sale the moment it opened at 9:30 and to buy the cake and bring it home.

When Amanda arrived at the sale however, the attractive cake had already been sold. Amanda grabbed her cell phone and called her mom. Alice was beside herself. Everyone would know!

What would they think? She would be ostracized, talked about, ridiculed! All night, Alice lay awake in bed thinking about people pointing fingers at her and talking about her behind her back.

The next day, Alice promised herself that she would try not to think about the cake and that she would attend the fancy luncheon at the home of a neighbor and try to have a good time. Alice did not really want to attend because the hostess was a snob, but having already sent her RSVP, she couldn't think of a credible excuse to stay home.

The meal was elegant, and the company was upper class. Then to Alice's horror, the cake in question was presented for dessert! Alice felt the blood drain from her body when she saw the cake! She started out of her chair to tell the hostess all about it, but before she could get to her feet, the Mayor's wife said, "What a beautiful cake!"

Alice still stunned, sat back in her chair when she heard the hostess say, "Thank you, I baked it myself."

Forced to flee the wrath of his brother Eisav, Yaakov sought refuge in the home of his brother-in-law Lavan in Charan. The Medrash1 relates that despite the fact that Lavan was legendary for being wily and duplicitous, Yaakov was not intimidated or afraid of living in his home. “If for deceit he is coming, then I am his brother (i.e. rival) in deceit. And if he is a decent person then I too am a decent person.”

From the Torah’s account of Yaakov’s experiences in Lavan’s home however, one can’t help but feel that Yaakov’s confidence was somewhat misplaced. Lavan in fact duped Yaakov in a most egregious fashion. After Yaakov specified that he would toil ceaselessly and tirelessly on Lavan’s behalf for seven years so that he could marry his younger daughter Rachel, Lavan successfully manipulated Yaakov to end up with his older daughter Leah. The incident is even more intriguing because Yaakov was wary of the fact that Lavan would try to accomplish that switch. How was Yaakov able to be fooled by Lavan? What happened to Yaakov’s assertion that, “I am his brother in deceit”?

Rabbi Sholom Shwadron zt’l explained that in order to understand what truly occurred one must first understand who Lavan really was. The Medrash relates that Lavan was known as “Lavan Ha’arami”. Although the term simply means “Lavan the Armenian”, there is a deeper meaning and significance of his ignoble title.

The Medrash relates that at the wedding when Yaakov (unwittingly) married Lean, Lavan duped his entire town. Lavan gathered all of the townsfolk and told them, ‘You know that we have had a water shortage, and that since this righteous one (Yaakov) has arrived we have enjoyed bountiful water’. He then revealed to them his deceitful plan to cause Yaakov to marry Leah which would force Yaakov to stay for an additional seven years in order to marry his coveted Rachel. To ensure that no one would reveal the plan to Yaakov, Lavan solicited from every person in town an object for security. He then took all of those expensive objects, sold them, and used the proceeds to pay for the wedding. Anyone who wanted back his security had to purchase it from the storeowner who had accepted it as payment.

The Medrash concludes, “Woe! Why was he called Lavan2 Ha’arami? Because he deceived3 his entire village.”

Based on the aforementioned story, we must wonder why he is termed “the deceitful one” and not “the wicked one”? It would seem that tricking one’s own neighbors and friends is not only sly but blatantly malicious and evil?

We must also wonder how Lavan had the temerity to do what he did. Did he have absolutely no conscience whatsoever, as to be able to hoodwink those who he was closest with? Even the most imbecilic individual would have more sense than to swindle all of his friends on the night of his daughter’s wedding, and then dance and dine with them using the money he stole from them?

Rabbi Shwadron explained that the Torah defines people based on their true inner self. The commentaries expend great effort to explain the details and particulars of individual behavior. But the Torah pinpoints the origin, the source of all of an individual’s life behaviors and experiences.

Eisav is dubbed ‘Eisav the wicked’ because wickedness and cruelty was his core shortcoming. Indeed he committed many crimes out of desire for money and hatred for holiness, but at his core was an unconquered moral depravity and corruptness.

Lot is dubbed the ‘desiring one’ because ultimately it was his lusts and desires that prevented him from reaching greatness. Although he too committed sins as a member of Sodom that could be viewed as wicked he is called the ‘desiring one’ because that was his primary inadequacy.

Lavan too committed many acts that made him deserving of many alternate titles. But the Torah reveals to us that the primary catalyst of his behavior was his unrestrained deceitfulness.

Although Lavan was innately a man of deceit the true depth of his treachery lay in the fact that his greatest victim was… himself!4 Whenever Lavan conjured up a new plan of action, a new way to solicit money or goods from a hapless victim, he immediately justified his actions in his own mind. So seduced was he by his own schemes and machinations that he wholly convinced himself that what he was doing was not only not a sin but it was the proper course of action. He was absolutely sure that what he did is what needed to be done at that time and in that situation.

It is in that sense that Lavan is titled5 “the father of all charlatans”. Lavan was not merely the master charlatan, he was in a league of his own. Because he so convinced himself of the veracity of his cause and motives his deceit knew no limits. That was why he was able to dupe his entire city and then dance with them at the wedding which they paid for. That was also why he was able to turn to his daughter at her own wedding and tell her to go back home because her sister was going home with the groom.

When Yaakov entered the home of Lavan he declared that he was prepared to deal with the trickery of Lavan and he was confident that he would not fall prey to Lavan’s deceit. But Yaakov failed to realize that he was not dealing with a charlatan - at least not in Lavan’s mind. Yaakov was wise and wary enough to outfox Lavan’s antics and foibles but Lavan did not present with antics and foibles. In Lavan’s own mind he was genuine and sincere, truly believing he was justified in all that he did. Yaakov had no way to rival a person who felt he was righteous and just.

When Yaakov indeed confronted Lavan and asks him, “Why have you deceived me?” Lavan did not even acknowledge the accusation. Instead he responded, “That is not the way it is done in our places, to give the younger one before the older one.” Lavan’s response reverses the accusation onto Yaakov, as if to criticize him for trying to breach the communal custom.

Arguing with Lavan was an exercise in futility. There can be no negotiation or discussion with an evildoer who believes he is righteous.

My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, often relates that the events that the Torah records are not ancient history. We encounter the likes of Lot, Lavan, and Eisav in our everyday lives. We have to analyze and contemplate the ways in which the Patriarchs dealt with each of these challenging individuals to understand how we must respond as well.

On a deeper and more profound level we must realize that there is a bit of Lavan, Lot, and Eisav within ourselves. It is incumbent upon us to learn from these epoch narratives how we can grow and overcome our own shortcomings.

In an article entitled, “Torah Revitalized: Writing A New Chapter6, the Los Angeles Times reports that a congregation in Northridge, California is undertaking the rectification of an ancient Torah scroll. The Torah is over 300 years old, having survived the Holocaust. After lying in a deserted warehouse with many other abandoned scrolls for over three decades in a deserted synagogue in Prague, it was rescued by a British philanthropist. One scroll eventually made its way to the congregation in California where to date it is used very rarely because of its fragile state. When it is fixed it will be used more regularly.

The leader of the congregation is quoted as saying, “Torahs are meant to be used… read from… and studied from. Restoring the Torah shows the commitment we have to keeping a Torah in kosher condition, in working order, so we can read, learn, and study from it.”

What I found intriguing about the touching story is that the congregation belongs to a Reform Temple. How incongruous that they are looking to a restore a scroll, whose content they distort! How ironic that they will beautify the words which read “Remember the day of Shabbos to sanctify it” while they themselves do not observe the holy day according to the dictates of that scroll7.

It must be said that we gain little by pointing out the foibles of our well-meaning, yet grossly misguided brethren. The truth is we have to take a candid look at ourselves to determine how/when we delude ourselves! How often do we convince ourselves that what we are doing is proper, when others (and perhaps even the Torah) do not view it that way?

Yaakov was able and ready to counter all of Lavan’s ploys, but even he could not outwit a person who was convinced his actions were righteous and pure.

Sometimes the person we fool most is ourselves!

“I am his brother in deceit”

“The father of all charlatans”

1 Bereishis Rabba 70:13
2 “Lavan” means white. He would commit all of his antics and yet show a face of innocence and purity, as if he was white and pure (see Medrash 60:8).
3 A ‘ramai’ is a deceitful individual.
4 Rabbi Shwadron explains that “Arami” is a verb, as in who is deceitful to others. But “Ha’arami” is a noun, connoting one who is himself a deceived person… deceived by himself.
5 Tanchuma, beginning of parshas Vayishlach
6 The article is dated October 16, 2010
7 I surely do not mean to denigrate what the congregation is doing. It is a beautiful idea to restore a Torah scroll to its glory. But it is unquestionably a far greater, and more important, restoration of the beauty of Torah to renew commitment to its laws.


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