29/929 People for Work, or Work for People?

This is a (hopefully) daily series of short reflections in English on the daily chapter of Tanach in the (wonderful, wonderful) 929 Project. The initiative, and the ideas and opinions expressed here, are my own. If you haven’t heard of 929, you can learn more at 929.org.il

Do you see people as a means to an end, or an end unto themselves? These two models meet in chapter 29. For Yaakov, people are to be cherished, greeted, hugged, kissed. His model is family, and for Yaakov, complete strangers are family, too. “My brothers!” He calls out warmly to the shepherds. Their terse replies have a clear message- we mean business. The level of social cohesion is nil. The only way to ensure that no one shepherd takes advantage of the limited resources is through a coercive social contract. For Yaakov, the moment family appears, social contracts and conventions are meaningless. He can’t see Rachel as just another cog in the wheel- she’s family. Lavan begins with this approach, but after a month, the instrumental calculus of business relationships wins out over the family model. ‘Are you my brother, that you should work for free?’ When he gives Leah to Yaakov, the same calculus and social conventions are at work. Yaakov’s powerful love, which made his years of toil pass as days, is irrelevant. That’s not the way things are done. Leah, at least to begin with, is very much Lavan’s daughter. She names her first three children based on their utility as a means to an end- gaining the love of Yaakov. Indeed, when we think about the destiny of these three tribes, they are all understood to fill service positions for the Jewish people. Religious service is at first the purview of Reuven, the firstborn, and then transfers to Levi and his tribe; the tribe of Shimon is understood to form the Jewish people’s teachers corps. A king is born only when Leah for the first time can see and name her child not for his instrumental value, but solely for the wonder he is.

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.