“All my life I struggle against the notions instilled by the kindergarten teachers.” Thus said to me the professor who taught me Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, one of my first lessons in critical introductions. It is true. Young Israeli intellectuals, perhaps educated Jews in general, arrive at the university gates with a firm notion of a tradition. Whether they were brought up orthodox or secular, they have some baggage, and it mars their acquaintance with textual facts.
Sometimes I am surprised to find I still carry this baggage with me, so many years after that induction into critical Wissenschaft des Judentums. Lesson 1: Fulghum was wrong. Forget everything you learned in kindergarten.
In a student’s paper, a brief praise for Laban is the surprise of the day. He is the archvillain, because of him our Jacob needs to work extra years for the Rachel he deserves. So it is told in all kindergartens, or elementary schools at the latest. Every year, on Seder night, the Haggadah makes it worse. Could it be we were entirely wrong about him?
I go back to the text. Yes, Laban cheated Jacob, but there are two points that exonerate him: first, in a cosmic karma sense, Laban is only playing a role intended to give Jacob his reward. He cheated his own father, pretending to be the eldest, and when he has to flee, his father in law cheats him on the same matter. What goes around, Jacob, surely comes around, in the form of the wrong wife at your bedside. Second, Jacob would have had to be quite naïve to think he was going to get away with this: marrying the beautiful younger daughter while the elder daughter with the soft eyes remain a maiden. Jacob, as we all know by now, is anything but naïve. Laban may have cheated him, but Jacob was taking a risk to begin with.
And their relationship ends pretty much the same, two swindlers at each other’s throats. Laban will never see his daughters again, and is equally sorry to see all the flock he believed was rightfully his, but Jacob begged to differ. He earned it, it was his to keep. This is not a matter of father-in-laws and sons, it is an old-time struggle between employers and employees. Jacob leaves in flight, in stealth, just as he arrived. Recalling how he arrived, could Laban expect it to be any different? It was a script to be played out, and they each played their role faithfully, bringing it to a tragic end, the only possible end when all are set to cheat each other, and no-one speaks the truth.
This is very much true to life, but the preschool teachers hope to change the world. They raise one generation after another with a story of good and evil, with two sides, and tell the children to grow up righteous, as Jacob was. The kindergarten teachers are Deuteronomists, and thus the verse about the wandering Aramean, whatever its original meaning was, is how we remember Laban, with a little help from the rabbis.