Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner reflects on the Torah portion Vayetze in this piece written for the ‘Limmud on One Leg’ series.
That Laban is just infuriating. He is one of the most sneaky, immoral, family members that you would ever-not-want-to-have in your family or, for that matter, anywhere near your tribe.
However, from Laban we can learn. From Laban, we can learn how never to treat people we work with, and especially, how never to treat those who work for us – those over whom we hold power.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayetzeh, describes the excruciating working relationship of Jacob and his uncle, Laban (did I mention that I’m not keen on him?). It is the first Biblical example of an employer-employee relationship and this relationship serves as a warning. As with Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, the Torah uses Laban as its version of what might be called “via negativa” (via the negative). In theology “via negativa” means making statements about God only by making statements about the attributes that God does not have but here it could be spun as “showing the worst possibilities as a big-bad warning.”
Laban teaches us not to be seduced into a false sense of security by positive beginnings. After one month of Jacob working for Laban, Laban seems to be treating his nephew well when he asks him to “name your wages” (Genesis 29:15). It sounds promising but his exploitation of Jacob is just starting to rev up. As we know from the famous Sister-Swap Jacob works for seven years only to be cheated out of the dowry he has earned, and then endures this conniving boss for another seven years. He leaves with two wives but does not own any property of his own. Additionally, work security was never on the agenda as Laban changes Jacob’s wages ten times (Genesis 31:7).
Rebecca, Jacob’s mother and Laban’s sister, may have had another plot in mind, after switching Isaac’s inheritance in favour of Jacob over Esau. Her brother had no sons, so sending Jacob to marry a cousin would keep Laban’s property in the family. It didn’t work out!
It is refreshing that the sixteenth century halakhic code, the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 337:20) takes Jacob as the archetypical outstanding worker, and by the “via negativa” inference, Laban is the exemplar of a bad employer. The Shulchan Aruch rules that just as it is forbidden for an employer to cheat, misuse or hold back wages from his employee, an employee must take care not to steal from his employer by messing about and wasting his or her working hours. The example of the employee who worked with all his might is Jacob, (Genesis 31:6).
Modern sensibilities may well point out that Jacob’s devotion to his work for Laban and the confusion- as we might say – of personal and professional agendas is profoundly wrong. They have more to do with feudal bondage than a free exchange of labour. Yet at a time when workers right’s are seen as a possible barrier to restarting economic growth and may be weakened, it is helpful for us to remember the dynamics of this family narrative and demand clear and fair contracts that protect employees from exploitation, especially in a double dip recession.