Laban,who appears for the first time in this weekend’s Torah portion, is an intriguing figure. Unlike Patriarchal antagonists Pharaoh, Abimelech and Esau, we never hear the refrain “He will kill me” concerning Laban. He seems nice. However, in the Haggadah, Laban is presented as our arch-nemesis. On Passover, we would expect Pharaoh to be the Big Bad, but apparently he plays second fiddle while Memphis burns. We read:
Come and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our patriarch Jacob. For Pharaoh issued his edict against only the males, but Laban sought to uproot it all, as it is said (Deut. 26:5), “My father was lost to an Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and he became there a nation, great, mighty and populous.”
This is stunning. Pharaoh murders thousands and enslaves millions, but Laban surpasses him for thought crimes?
However, we must bear in mind that the Haggadah is a Midrashic work. In the Midrash, Laban is merely one name for a nigh-immortal character who plagues the Jews repeatedly. You may know him by a different name.
Balaam is Laban, as it says (Deut. 26:5), “My father was lost to an Aramean;” because he sought to eradicate Israel, he is called an Aramean. (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayetze 13)
Now, at least, we enter the same ballpark. Balaam also has bad intentions, but he actually does some damage, as Moses states: (Num. 31:16): “Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD.” This plague kills 24,000.
Still, tragic as that event is, can it really compare to the centuries of slavery and genocide courtesy of the Pharaohs?
Interestingly, the Midrash does connect Pharaoh to Balaam’s execratory consulting business.
Said R. Hiya b. Abba, quoting R. Simai: “There were part of that council, Balaam, Job and Jethro. Balaam, who counseled, was killed; Job, who was silent, was sentenced to suffering; Jethro, who fled, merited to have grandchildren sit on the Supreme Court.” (Talmud, Sota 11a)
The Rabbis taught: “Pharaoh had three counselors, and when he contracted leprosy, he asked the physicians what would cure him. Balaam counseled him to take Jews, slaughter them, and shower in their blood, thereby curing himself.” (Midrash Ha-gadol, Exod. 2:23)
These two legends describe the bookends of Egyptian slavery, from the initial “Come, let’s deal wisely with them” (Exod. 1:10) to the gruesome finale (2:23), “But the Israelites continued to groan under their burden of slavery. They cried out for help, and their cry rose up to God.” Immediately afterwards, God appears to Moses and sends him to Egypt to redeem his people.
Now let’s look at that line from the Haggadah again. “For Pharaoh issued his edict against only the males, but Laban sought to uproot it all.” Who are “only the males”? This may refer to the baby boys Pharaoh orders cast into the Nile, but those are mentioned later in the Haggadah as “the boys,” not “the males.” “The males” is usually a term applied to men, those who would be combatants in war (cf. Num. 31:7, Deut. 20:13). In fact, in the verse cited above (Exod. 1:10), Pharaoh identifies the threat in the following way: “Otherwise they will continue to multiply, and if a war breaks out, they will ally themselves with our enemies and fight against us and leave the country.” In the previous verse, he explains why he is concerned: the Israelites are “atzum mimenu,” “mightier than we.” In Numbers 22, King Balak of Moab, Balaam’s other royal client, expresses the exact same concern, “atzum hu mimeni,” “it is mightier than I.” He too speaks of the Israelite threat in military terms: “Perhaps I will be able to strike it and drive it out of the land… Perhaps I will be able to wage war against it and drive it out.”
However, Balaam-Laban takes this national-security threat and recasts it as an existential, eschatological fight. After he fails to curse the Israelites and is fired by Balak, he says: “Now I am going back to my people, but come, let me counsel you of what this people will do to your people in the end of days” (ibid. 24:14). If Moab does not destroy Israel, they will be destroyed by them. It is the same approach he used with Pharaoh: Egypt can survive the Hebrew threat only if the Nile turns red with their blood. It is genocide or suicide.
In this light, Laban-Balaam is indeed worse than Pharaoh or Balak. He seeks “to uproot it all,” “to eradicate Israel.” The king is merely the tool, the means to carry out this plan. It is Laban-Balaam who recasts the military/ national-security threat as an existential clash of peoples, nations and faiths.
These are dangerous times in the Middle East. We have to be vigilant against the forces of Pharaoh. But the true threat is the counsel of Laban, inflaming and inciting all-out war.