Character Development

Lavan – Honesty is the Best Policy

One of the Avos’ most pernicious foes was Lavan, who was Yaakov Avinu’s uncle and later his father-in-law. Even a superficial reading of the stories involving Lavan shows that he was certainly not the paradigm of morality.

However, Chazal paint him in a far more negative light, based on a verse in parashas Ki Savo. The Torah outlines the declaration that a person would make when bringing his first fruits to the Temple. It begins by saying, “An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather.” The Midrash and the Haggadah identify this Aramean as Lavan;[1] according to these sources, the Torah is revealing to us that Lavan intended to destroy the Jewish people.

The commentaries disagree as to the exact meaning of this verse. Some take it literally – Lavan intended to wipe out Yaakov’s family, his own descendants. Others say that his goal was to destroy them spiritually by causing them to assimilate into his own family and espouse its worldview. Either way, examining the events involving Lavan can teach us vital lessons about how not to behave.

Before Yaakov came to Haran, Lavan was not particularly successful: He seems to have had a fairly small flock of animals[2] and no sons. Once Yaakov joined him, Lavan prospered. As Yaakov tells Lavan after fourteen years of loyally working for him: “You know how I served you and what your livestock were with me. For the little that you had before I came has expanded substantially, as HaShem has blessed you with my coming.…” Yaakov was telling Lavan that all his success was due only to Yaakov’s presence, not to Lavan’s deceitful business practices.

Furthermore, the Midrash notes that Lavan did have sons later, and this was also in Yaakov’s merit. Lavan himself acknowledged the benefit he accrued from Yaakov’s presence and therefore entreated him to remain.

All of Lavan’s devious efforts at amassing riches failed. Rather, the obvious source of his new affluence was the righteous Yaakov. Accordingly, it would have made sense for Lavan to at least partially change his ways and live a more moral lifestyle. Yet he did not: Yaakov remained with Lavan only because he now agreed to let him accrue his own flocks. And, consonant with the past, Yaakov succeeded greatly due to HaShem’s kindness.

How did Lavan react? Yaakov tells us in his final confrontation with Lavan: “This is my twenty years in this household: I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flocks; and you changed my wage a hundred times.” Lavan changed the details of their agreement no fewer than one hundred times! Lavan did not deny these strong accusations as it was obvious that they were true. His persistent dishonesty is quite remarkable – he tried dozens of ways of deceiving Yaakov, and none succeeded. He could have contemplated that perhaps his trickery was not helping him. Furthermore, the success of his upright son-in-law should have taught him that honesty was the best policy. Yet he stubbornly refused to learn from Yaakov.

The Meshech Chochmah finds an allusion to Lavan’s inability to change in the words of the Torah itself. After Yaakov and Lavan’s final encounter, they made a covenant not to harm each other. Then “Lavan got up in the morning, kissed his sons and daughters, blessed them, and went, and Lavan returned to his place.” The final words of this verse seem superfluous – it is obvious that Lavan went back home.

The Meshech Chochmah therefore explains that the Torah is teaching us that Lavan returned not only geographically, but spiritually – to the same abysmal level he had been on before Yaakov’s arrival.[3] Though it is only natural for a person’s greatness to rub off on those around him, Lavan lived with one of the greatest tzaddikim of all time for twenty years and learned nothing. Chazal add that Lavan even returned to the same physical state: During the night, all the wealth he had accumulated during Yaakov’s stay was stolen, and he returned to the poverty of his pre-Yaakov years. This fate underscores that all of Lavan’s success stemmed from Yaakov’s righteousness and had nothing to do with his own trickery.

Lavan reminds us of the futility of relying on “natural” means of success. According to the “laws of nature,” Lavan’s immorality should have brought him the wealth he craved. But according to “spiritual law,” only righteousness pays.

A striking example of this idea is found in a gemara in Bava Metzia(35a). The gemara discusses a scenario in which somebody lent his friend an item whose value is subsequently disputed. The gemara concludes that the borrower must take an oath to validate his claim. Why not the lender? The gemara explains that the lender is wealthy, so he must be honest, because otherwise “Heaven would not have granted him wealth.” Many people believe, as Lavan did, that they can get ahead by cheating. Lavan’s story proves otherwise.

Notes and Sources

[1] Sifrei, Ki Savo 301.

[2] Ohr HaChaim, Bereishis 29:9.

[3] Meshech Chochmah, Bereishis 31:54.

From the book “Beacons of Light”


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