The Power of Secrets: Jacob, Laban, and the Passover Haggadah

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Erica Brown

The French artist Nicolas Vleughels (1668-1737) depicts one of many moments of tension between Laban and Jacob.[1] A thin space splits the canvas in half, spatially communicating the adversarial nature of their relationship. Laban opens his arms in an indecipherable plea that meets Jacob’s gesture of self-defense and anger. The sheep in the right-hand corner are on Jacob’s side of the canvas, perhaps foreshadowing his exceptional sheep breeding to collect his rightful earnings. Hanging from the balcony as if floating above his father, it seems that one of Laban’s unnamed sons displays his arm in a sign of strength and support.

Rachel and Leah are also on opposite sides of the canvas. Leah stands beside her father, the elder daughter of soft eyes, who in the biblical story is vanquished by the beautiful, younger daughter with a matrimony of deceit. Rachel weeps into a cloth.[2] Laban is taller than Jacob, more fully clothed and closed while Jacob’s body is open and exposed. Jacob’s posture of vulnerability that Vleughels captures with his brush is in evidence throughout the Jacob/Laban narratives and may provide an answer to a niggling, difficult question: Why is Laban mentioned in the Haggadah?

Laban in the Haggadah

The introduction of Laban marks the beginning of the Haggadah’s overview of Jewish history. All storytellers select the moment their story begins. Using Laban to frame the Exodus story is a curious literary decision, almost a distraction from the main order of business at every Seder:

Go and learn what Laban the Aramean wanted to do to our father Jacob. For Pharaoh had issued a decree only against the male children, but Laban wanted to uproot everyone, as it is said: “The Aramean sought to destroy my father, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and he became there a nation – great, mighty and numerous” [Deut. 26:5].

Suddenly and with only the context that in “every generation, they rise to destroy us,” the Haggadah mentions Laban. Comparing Laban to Pharaoh seems odd. Pharaoh tried to kill all male infants. There is no indication in Genesis that Laban intended to kill both male and female children or any children at all. “La’akor et ha-kol,” to uproot everything, suggests a desire to decimate a people in its entirety: its members, heritage, and values. There was not actually much to uproot at this stage, just a large family in its third generation without a long history or any laws. Whatever we think of Laban’s character when we read the Genesis narratives that tell his story, we never accuse him of destroying the Jewish people. Only in the Haggadah is this claim made.

To amplify our problem, according to a plain reading of the biblical text, Laban is depicted as a warm and demonstrative patriarch on several occasions. When Jacob arrived, Laban was quick to meet him: “On hearing the news of his sister’s son Jacob, Laban ran to greet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and took him into his house” (Genesis 29:13). Later, when Jacob, his wives, and children fled, Laban is depicted as affectionate but distraught: “And Laban said to Jacob, ‘What did you mean by keeping me in the dark and carrying off my daughters like captives of the sword? Why did you flee in secrecy and mislead me and not tell me?’” (Genesis 31:26-27). Even discounting Laban’s claim to send the family off with “festive music, with timbrel and lyre,” it is difficult to regard Laban as more hard-hearted than the callous Pharaoh. We hear the pathos Laban expressed at the family’s departure – “You did not even let me kiss my sons and daughters good-bye!” (Genesis 31:28)- and cannot help but feel some sympathy for Laban’s situation.

If anyone uprooted a family at this point, it was actually Jacob, who fled with his wives and children and uprooted Laban’s universe. Jacob created a subterfuge to expand his flocks to literally fleece Laban. Successful, Jacob then abruptly evacuated: “Jacob kept Laban the Aramean in the dark, not telling him that he was fleeing – and fled with all he had…” (Genesis 31:20-21). In Kinship and Marriage in Genesis: A Household Economics Perspective, Naomi Steinberg observes that although Rachel and Leah fought a fertility war for Jacob’s attention, when they parted from Laban, there was no contention between them. They colluded with their husband against their father.[3] Rachel even stole Laban’s household idols. “Why did you steal my gods?” (Genesis 31:30) Laban petitioned. His household gods taken, Laban was deprived of worship, a solace in dark moments such as these.[4] As we hover on the surface of Genesis, Laban does not strike us as an uprooter. Despite his obvious dishonesty and exploitative nature, there is a sense that Laban, too, is a man who suffers great losses.

Jacob in Laban’s House

Laban’s warm greeting and doleful parting with Jacob are endearing bookends to chapters filled with Laban’s deceit, a dynamic apparent from the moment Jacob entered Laban’s territory. Jacob arrived at a well covered by a stone after sleeping on stones, and would later make an altar of stone. Stones are emblematic of the “hard and unyielding nature” of Jacob’s life.[5] At the well, Jacob greeted strangers waiting to graze their flocks: “My brothers, where are you from?” (Genesis 29:4). There was foreboding in his casual familiarity; the men neither acted fraternally nor extended the hospitality to strangers in sharp contrast to that associated with Abraham and his progeny. The men barely spoke, a portend of the poor communication to come: “‘Do you know Laban, the son of Nahor?’ They said, ‘Yes we do,’” (Genesis 29:6) without offering to introduce the two. Curt and unkind, they left the difficult work of stone removal to a stranger.

Jacob then did what he continued to do throughout his tenure in Laban’s house: work hard despite the sloth of others.[6] Jacob had an added incentive to remove the stone. Rachel, his charming first cousin, had to graze her sheep.[7] Upon meeting, Jacob kissed Rachel and then broke into tears. This was not a sensual kiss but a tonic of intimacy. This man of great strength ran away under the shadow of death and deceit to be swept into a refuge of love. Removing the stone, an act of extraordinary service, made Jacob feel worthy again of God’s blessing and earned him the respect of family. Despite tricking his father and brother, Jacob was still capable of goodness.

Laban then came to greet Jacob, the latter hoping to secure a place of honor and affection in his uncle’s home. “Laban said to him, ‘You are truly my bone and flesh’” (Genesis 29:14). What more could a young man displaced from his own home desire? Laban described their relationship using the same words Adam used in his first observation about Eve (Genesis 2:23). It seemed that in his desperate hour, Jacob had found genuine shelter.

After a month-long stay, Laban’s true colors surfaced; we glimpse the first of Laban’s cruelties in the face of Jacob’s vulnerabilities when the latter proposed a more long-term relationship with the family. Despite having two eligible daughters, Laban discussed wages with Jacob, not marriage. It was Jacob who boldly made the suggestion, presenting himself as a hard-working suitor. Laban reacted without enthusiasm: “Better that I give her to you than that I should give her to an outsider. Stay with me” (Genesis 29:18). Laban neither praised Jacob nor regarded the match as advantageous. It benefited Laban exclusively, captured in the words, “Stay with me” instead of “stay with her.”

Laban, ever the cunning, saw in Jacob’s bid a chance to pawn off his older, less beautiful daughter. Jacob at this point, however, was oblivious to Laban’s crafty nature. Being accepted in the family may have surpassed any capacity for suspicion. Only later did Jacob ask, “Why did you deceive me?” (Genesis 29:25). That it was not the custom of the younger to marry before the elder could have been communicated to Jacob earlier. We can imagine Laban’s possible retort, “I deceived you because you are a man who understands a thing or two about deception.” The question – why did you deceive me? – will be the ever-present query that undergirds the narrative and offers us insight into Laban’s strange role in the Haggadah.

Empty-Handed Jacob

One verse, innocuous and often ignored, may explain the severe criticism Laban receives on the Seder night. It does not appear when Laban and Jacob were in open turmoil, but, paradoxically, when the two first met. After Laban’s initial encounter, he took Jacob into his house, and Jacob “…told Laban everything that had happened” (Genesis 29:13). Medieval exegetes are divided in their explanation of the exchange. Rashi on 29:13 suggests Jacob revealed to Laban why he had come; Jacob was forced to do so because of Esau’s anger. Rashi then adds a detail not conveyed in the text: all of Jacob’s money had been taken from him, explaining why he showed up to Laban’s house without gifts. Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, on the same verse opts for a simpler, less dramatic explanation: Jacob told Laban that “his father and mother had sent him to members of the family.”

Abraham Ibn Ezra on 29:13 takes a different view. Jacob’s “everything” in this verse refers to words of blessing that Jacob lavished on Laban. Laban’s hug, his kiss, was everything a fugitive could hope for: the whole-hearted sanctuary of a relative stranger in a time of self-doubt, confusion, and grief. Jacob, in this reading, reciprocated with words of continuous praise summed up with the biblical word “ha-kol,” everything.[8]

This “everything” also could have obliquely referred to the everything that Jacob would one day receive as the now-primary beneficiary of Isaac’s inheritance (and as the expert sheep breeder in Laban’s house). Although he arrived with nothing, Jacob was sure to tell Laban that he would one day inherit everything to enhance his status in his uncle’s eyes. The French thirteenth century exegete, R. Hezekiah ben Manoah, on 29:13 takes this approach and weaves various interpretations together: “’He told Laban in detail about all these events’ – how he had acquired the birthright and subsequently the blessing, in order that Laban would agree to give him Rachel in marriage. He also told him that he had been forced to flee from his brother Esau in order to explain why he arrived empty-handed.” Nahum Sarna, in the JPS Torah Commentary to Genesis, does not believe Jacob would have been so forthcoming: “It is hardly credible that Jacob reported that he cheated his own brother and father. More likely, he told how his parents had sent him to find a wife from among his kinfolk and that his misadventures on the journey had brought him empty-handed.”[9]

We do not know from any explicit biblical verse that Jacob brought nothing with him, yet this is assumed by all of these commentators, both ancient and contemporary. They surmise that since no mention is made of any gifts – as was true of Eliezer when seeking out a wife for Isaac[10] – that Jacob had nothing to give. Laban was present during Eliezer’s gift-giving (Genesis 24:50), and may have expected more of his sister’s progeny than to send a son to visit with nothing in hand. In Understanding Genesis, Sarna underscores the “glaring contrast” between Abraham’s earlier well-laden entourage and “Jacob’s precipitate, lonely flight, on foot and empty-handed” to emphasize that Jacob put himself in this predicament.[11]

How Much is Nothing?

Jacob’s appearance without all the trappings associated with his father Isaac’s betrothal signified more than an empty purse. Jacob was an empty being. What, after all, did Jacob have to offer? In principle, he had his mother’s love and a birthright, but Jacob could not access either without risk to his life. Jacob had nothing because, at this point in his story, he was nothing, only an amalgamation of fears about his past and future with a promise from God that must have felt thin and remote. When Laban put Jacob to work, he understood that what Jacob had to offer was only himself, his raw ambition, and his diligence.

The Italian scholar, Rabbi Samuel David Luzzato, comments simply that the “everything” from verse 29:13 is all the peril that occurred to Jacob in his short life: “All of the reasons that he fled.” Jacob came to Laban’s house choked by a story of his failings. And it is Jacob’s failings that hold the secret to Laban’s true evil. Jacob likely did tell Laban everything that he did and all that resulted from his mishaps and poor judgment. It must have been an immense relief to unburden himself. After all, Laban called Jacob his flesh and bones; Laban showed Jacob love when Jacob was only able to feel self-hate, cringing at his duplicity and weathered by self-recrimination. We can imagine Jacob falling into his uncle’s arms as a safe haven, buffeted from his problems while slipping away to the edge of his known world. And then Jacob’s secrets tumbled out of him. He told Laban of his misdeeds before Jacob knew anything of Laban’s true nature – how, in the future, Laban would hold Jacob’s secret as a powerful weapon through which to exploit his relative and future son-in-law. Laban knew that if Jacob could lie to his father on Isaac’s deathbed, Laban could hold this lowest of moments against his future son-in-law, torturing Jacob with guilt, burdening him with extra work as a penance, making him feel unworthy, keeping Jacob small and unimportant in his household and depriving him of all the rights that the blessing Jacob stole promised him.

Anita Brookner opens her novel Look at Me with an observation about all revelations: “Once a thing is known it can never be unknown.”[12] In this “everything” that was Jacob’s confession, he revealed too much. He shared with Laban the “everything” that he had shared with no one else. The “everything” had Jacob traveling the familiar contours of his sin, his collusion with his mother Rebekah, the whispers, the minimal attempts at resistance, all of it outlined in Genesis 27. In that chapter, we are in the room with mother and son just before all would change in this small family. Rebekah charged Jacob to mimic Esau, even though the two were nothing alike. When Jacob tried to refuse, he was met with Rebekah’s dismissiveness: “But his mother said to him, ‘Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me’” (Genesis 27:13). She then prepared the clothing, dressed her son as if he were but a child and put the food into Jacob’s hands, while her son stood passively.

“Who are you?” Isaac asked Jacob. Jacob knew exactly who he would forever be to his revered, blind father: a cheat, a liar, and a trickster. Jacob’s smooth skin was too smooth and slippery in this dialogue. Did Jacob believe Rebekah when she told him the curse would be upon her, as if existential states were transferable? Jacob may have sensed he would ultimately bring a curse upon himself for his dishonesty, a human stain not easily removed. Arriving at Laban’s house with a chance to work, marry, and reinvent himself, Jacob may have thought that with his confession, by spilling everything, he could put the curse down at Laban’s doorstep. Yet in that everything, Jacob made himself dangerously susceptible to ill treatment, naked but for his truth. He kept no secrets. Like his depiction in Vleughels’s painting, Jacob was exposed while Laban was covered.

Perhaps all of the deception Jacob suffered at Laban’s hand was a direct consequence of initially admitting his own misdeeds and opening himself up to the ferocious and consuming power that Laban would suddenly have over him. Exploiters know that those most vulnerable make easy prey. Those who hold secrets without telling any of their own create an imbalance of power in a relationship; those who spill their deepest insecurities can become prey to blackmail and manipulation.

Jacob’s revelations, far from liberating him, actually created a trap from which he struggled to escape. Jacob’s willingness to do his mother’s bidding and cede his moral autonomy laid him bare for Laban to do the same, as Shmuel Klitsner observed: “Through the act of relinquishing his moral autonomy and disassociating from his own identity (I am Esau), Jacob has become a man whose life is not his own.”[13] Telling someone secrets gives them power. Jacob willingly gave Laban command over him, an act he would later come to regret.

Back to the Haggadah

Pharaoh was never regarded as the Bible’s characteristic enemy. When he enslaved the Jews and sought to reduce their number by having male infants thrown into the Nile, he did so out of a genuine military conundrum. The Israelites, through their sudden population growth, were becoming to Pharaoh a fifth column; Egypt was unprotected. His solution, though brutal, was to rid the people of male strength, the very strength that might one day challenge his authority.

Contrast this to the biblical enemy we mention regularly and with disgust: the Amalekites. We despise them for attacking the weak and commit, without a touch of irony, to erase them from memory by recalling them regularly. “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” (Exodus 17:14). The reason is unclear until we get to Deuteronomy, where we read:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25: 17-19).

The Amalekites were evil because they attacked those with no ability to fight back. The famished, the weary, and the straggler were all fair game to those who devalued human life. Had Pharaoh desired, he could have killed all the Jews in Goshen by throwing every newborn into the Nile’s maw, but Pharaoh’s driving reason was to guard his people and himself, not to destroy the Jews.

In the Haggadah, when Laban is compared to Pharaoh, Laban is deemed the more corrupt of the two. Pharaoh wanted to rid himself of the strong. Laban wanted to destroy the weak, to exploit a vulnerable Jacob who confessed all. Even moments when Laban seemed charming or bereft are suddenly open to reinterpretation. Was Laban trying to look and act as vulnerable as Jacob, but only more so, to have the upper hand yet again?

Jacob came to the brink of losing his entire earlier identity and promise in service to Laban’s material needs. After decades, Jacob would have become fully assimilated to Laban’s ways. Jacob was already dreaming of sheep; the mystical dream ladder covered in divine angels was now a distant memory. Jacob realized that his relationship with Laban had soured, yet it was only God who interposed: “Jacob also saw that Laban’s manner toward him was not as it had been in the past. Then the Lord said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you’” (Genesis 31:2-3). It was time for Jacob to understand that although Laban had power over him, Jacob still had choices to make, and God was the ultimate authority.

Had God not intervened, we recite in the Haggadah, we would still be slaves in Egypt. But had God not intervened and sent Jacob back to the land of his ancestors – our ancestors – the Israelites would never have gone down to Egypt in the first place. Jacob would have been fully absorbed in Laban’s house and his habits because of his failure to protect himself. Uprooted and helpless, Jacob’s secrets could have led to his ultimate undoing. The desire to tell all must be weighed against the need to say nothing. Silence, too, is power.

Secret Weapons

In her poem, “Privacy,”[14] Lee Upton writes:

Privacy is a kind of power, that must be obvious.
Who cares? One of my friends said.
I tell everyone everything about myself, she said.
And that’s when I knew she was the one
ho told my secret.

When we share our weaknesses, frailties, and secrets, we lose a certain kind of control over ourselves, over our narrative, over the construction of our personal identities. The choice to reveal our deepest selves to another can creates closeness and strengthen a relationship at the very same time it skirts danger. The impulse to connect often overrides the impulse to protect. The worry is that our failings will be used against us and weaken us further. In loving relationships, admissions of failure are part of emotional reciprocity; we express weakness to connect with another through our shared vulnerabilities. But in a non-loving relationship and to those who would use our frailties against us, such admissions can become our undoing.

Sissela Bok in Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation, observes that, “Whereas every lie stands in need of justification, all secrets do not. Secrecy may accompany the most innocent as well as the most lethal acts; it is needed for human survival, yet it enhances every form of abuse.”[15] When the burden of keeping our secrets and the confidences of others weighs heavily upon us, and the words are about to tumble out, we remember Jacob and tuck our inner treasures far from sight. The temptation to reveal all is overwhelmed by the desire to preserve a fragile privacy, to trust in quiet dignity. “Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered” (Proverbs 11:13).

[1]Jacob, Laban and Rachel” (31cm by 38cm), oil on paper, currently held in a private collection. Date unknown.

[2] The woman weeping may alternatively be Leah, humiliated at this moment by her new husband’s obvious disdain, reflecting this excoriation: “When morning came, there was Leah! So he (Jacob) said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?’” (Genesis 29:25). The artist would not likely have known the midrash cited by Rashi, ad loc., that Rachel was complicit in the wedding ruse out of compassion for her less eligible older sister. Megillah 13b records Rachel’s internal dialogue: “’My sister may now be put to shame,’ and she, therefore, readily transmitted these signs to her.”

[3] Naomi Steinberg, Kinship and Marriage in Genesis: A Household Economics Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 101-102.

[4] The “teraphim” were likely not objects of worship but estate deeds. See Barry Eichler, Indenture at Nuzi: The Personal Tidennūtu Contract and its Mesopotamian Analogues (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973) and Moshe Greenberg, “Another Look at Rachel’s Theft of the Teraphim,” JBL 81:3 (1962): 239-248, reprinted in his Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995), 261-272.

[5] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 66.

[6] Later, we see similar behavior from other minor characters, Laban’s sons. We have no record of their industry, only their indignation. In unison, they complained to Laban: “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from that which was our father’s he has built up all this wealth” (Genesis 31:1). They made no mention of how long or hard Jacob worked to build up Laban’s vast holdings.

[7] Scott B. Noegel in “Drinking Feasts and Deceptive Feats: Jacob and Laban’s Double Talk,” discusses linguistic puns throughout the Jacob narratives. The verse “Behold, Rachel, his daughter is coming with the sheep” (Gen. 29:6) plays off Rachel’s name, “ewe lamb,” with the Hebrew – “ba-ah,” is coming – playing off the sound of a lamb, suggesting, Noegel contends, that “she was grazing.” Alternatively, lamb/sheep images foreshadow how entangled Jacob’s future would be with Laban’s flocks, both progeny and sheep. See Puns and Pundits: Word Play in the Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Literature (Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 2000), 164-165.

[8] I am grateful to Andrew Borodach and Michael Herskovitz who offered a number of insights on this essay. Michael drew my attention to the use of the word “ba-kol” in Genesis 24:1; Abraham, near the end of his life, was blessed with “everything.” This “everything” is regarded as a reference to offspring (see Rashi ad loc.) that could have a similar nuance here. Jacob told Laban here that he was searching for a bride, which allowed Laban to manipulate the situation to serve him.

[9] Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary/Genesis (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 203.

[10] See Genesis 24:22: “When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold nose-ring weighing a half-shekel, and two gold bands for her arms, ten shekels in weight.” Later, even more gifts were presented, “The servant brought out objects of silver and gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah; and he gave presents to her brother and her mother” (Genesis 24:53).

[11] Nahum M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel (New York: Schocken, 1972), 186.

[12] Anita Brooker, Look at Me (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 5.

[13] Shmuel Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis (Teaneck, N.J.: Ben Yehuda Press, 2009), 91. Klitsner supports this reading by showing how Jacob’s defining decisions were made by someone else. Laban, rather than Jacob, decided on his bride. Rachel and Leah decide their children’s names. Even when he has a family and flocks of his own, “…he oddly still sees himself as disenfranchised,” p. 93.

[14] Lee Upton, “Privacy,” The New Yorker (April 29, 2019): 46.

[15] Sissela Bok, Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation (New York: Pantheon, 1983 ), xv.

Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership and Director of the Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership. Her most recent book is Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile (Maggid). Her forthcoming book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid).