20 Nov 2015

Vayetse 5776: White Noise

Vayetse 5776: White Noise

“Love is possible only if two persons communicate with each other from the centre of their existence” — Erich Fromm

The children of Israel had two grandfathers. We, the descendants, speak of one as a patriarch and the other as merely a progenitor. They are, of course, Yitzhak on Jacob’s side and Laban on Rachel and Leah’s side.

Laban, our maternal grandfather was a man who found it difficult to live with a faithful attitude towards life. Although Laban provided Yaakob with work during the years that he was building and raising his family, he had poor relationships with his son-in-law and daughters.

Laban was never straight with Yaakob. There was no consistency in Laban’s interactions and life decisions because there was no consistency in Laban himself. He committed to the marriage of his daughter but manipulated it to suit his own needs. He committed to business agreements only to alter them as it suited him[1]. He treated his daughters as nothing more than acquaintances and was interested only in how they enhanced his personal standing. Laban had forsaken love, faithfulness and commitment for manipulation, dishonesty and personal gain.

Yaakob realised that he could never trust his father in law worrying that he would steal from him all he had built and earned[2]. His wives recognise[3] that they were nothing more than strangers in their father’s eyes and therefore decide that it was time to leave. Knowing that Laban would stand in their way[4], Yaakob and his family leave covertly upon realising their departure, Laban chases after them. Once Laban is reunited with his family he ruins his opportunity of winning them back.

He starts with what sounds like care:

I would have sent you off with happiness and songs; drums and harps! You didn’t let me kiss my sons and daughters! (31:27-28)

But the feigned love quickly gives way to the underlying selfishness and true motives:

I have it in my hand to do evil with all[5] of you! (31:29)

The daughters are my daughters! The sons are my sons! The flock is my flock! And all that you see belongs to me!  (31:43)

There was no love in Laban’s heart for his daughters and grandchildren because Laban had no true identity of his own that was specific and consistent. He was ‘white’, as his name indicates[6], in the sense that he was of all colours but of no specific colour. We see white when every colour of light is reflected.

Laban had never developed a self of integrity and he was therefore never fully born living only in the realm of life’s potential. Because nothing was ever actualised to him and nothing was emphatically real, he invested in nothing and only acted in terms of what was beneficial for him at any given moment. He was not concerned with maintaining a steady approach to life. He did not keep his word because there was no continuity to his identity. His love could not be cultivated because he had no firm individuality that could form a proper relationship with another person. Eric Fromm sees this as integral to the ability to love in his book ‘The Art of Loving’:

“mature love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality. Love is an active power in man; a power which breaks through the walls which separate man from his fellow men, which unites him with others; love makes him overcome the sense of isolation and separateness, yet it permits him to be himself, to retain his integrity. In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.”

Laban had never laid the foundations for real relationships. The most telling example of this was that it was more important to Laban that he keep his idols than his family. The icons of his personal projections meant more to him than any real and external relationship could. He therefore frantically rummages through every inch of his family’s belongings in search of his treasured totems[7].

By the story’s end, Laban’s lack of any cohesive elements in his life, neither in his own identity nor with his close relatives, leave him isolated with nothing more than his ever changing whims and desires. We learn from our maternal grandfather that our integrity and loving relationships are our anchors and hopes for the future. The alternative is to lose oneself in the indiscriminate sea of ‘white noise’.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


[1] 31:41

[2] See 31:36-42.

[3] 31:14-15.

[4] 31:31

[5] I heard in the name of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik that this is the source for the rabbis’ statement in the Haggada: “Laban wished to uproot the entire people” as opposed to Pharaoh who aimed only at destroying the males.

[6] Laban is ‘white’ in Hebrew.

[7] 31:33-35