Bit by Bit

Parashat Vayeitzeh, Human Rights Shabbat 2016
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz


Bit by Bit


When Jacob left Beer-Sheva and journeyed towards Charan, he was truly and utterly free. Not even gravity could constrain him, as he laid his head to rest on a pillow of stone and dreamt of the angels ascending and descending the ‘sulam’, the ladder to the heavens.
Jacob was on an intrepid adventure, a quest for liberation. He needed to get away from the limitations of his own upbringing and the mistakes that bound him to his past. In that freedom, he found vision in the night, courage in his fear.

Yet, only a chapter later, he found himself in subjugation to his uncle Laban’s deception. Wanting to marry his cousin Rachel, the beautiful younger daughter, Laban contracted him to work for seven years before allowing him to marry her. The Torah tells us that Jacob agrees with the terms and conditions of this arrangement and narrates: ‘Vayavod Ya’akov b’Rachel sheva shanim va’yihyu be’einav k’yamim echadim b’ahavato otah’ – ‘and Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they were in his eyes like a few days because of his love for her’. During his nuptials, however, Laban deceived him and switched his younger daughter for his firstborn, Leah. Upon discovery, Jacob was still intending to marry his beloved Rachel and Laban forced him to work another seven years for Rachel’s bride-price.

We often read this story in light of love and deception, of passion and fate. But do we pay enough attention to the power dynamics of the narrative? We may justify Laban’s deception in light of Jacob’s own deceiving of Esau, tit-for-tat, or as the Torah calls it, ‘middah k’neged middah’, measure for measure. As is common with abusive dynamics, we want to avert our gaze from the profound injustice of the situation, especially when the abuse takes place in a familial or domestic context.
The fact of the matter is that Laban was abusive; and silver-tongued in justifying his abuse. Being the trickster that he is, he lured Jacob into his trap with a ‘is it right because you’re my brother that you should work for free? Tell me what your pay should be.’ Judging by the proximity of the next verse, ‘And Laban had two daughters’, a midrashic interpretation may be that he set up this situation for his lonely and destitute nephew by enticing him with the prospect of a beautiful bride.
The Torah then tells us that Jacob served Laban for seven years. The Hebrew verb ‘la’avod’ means both to serve (or to slave) as well as to work. There are other Hebrew words that refer to work or physical labour specifically, such as ‘lip’ol’ – to labour or ‘la’asok’, to busy oneself with or to engage in. Yet, the Torah chooses ‘la’avod’, that word of moral ambiguity that can either refer to the dignity of service or the denigration of servitude. Not only that; Laban forces him to work yet another seven years in order for Jacob to wed Rachel after the deception with Leah. The text, I think, asks a few critical questions of us readers.

If Laban truly had Jacob’s best interest at heart as a close relative, as well as the best interest of his daughters – and if his concern of the older daughter being left without a husband were genuine – shouldn’t he just have given both daughters in matrimony to Jacob? At least he should have absolved Jacob of the obligation to work yet another seven years.

If Jacob was happy to comply with Laban’s request the first time round, should we assume he was equally happy to second time around? The Torah doesn’t say that the second batch of seven years passed ‘like just a few days’. Instead the Torah remains silent on Jacob’s state of mind, just stating ‘Va’ya’avod imo od seva shanim acherot’ – ‘and he worked with him another seven years’, and we as readers may assume that he was far less enthusiastic during his second period of indentured servitude.

These parameters suggest that reading extending beyond love and fate and reaching into power and abuse. Laban used his daughters as a honey trap to trap Jacob as a slave. He was a predator who consciously targeted his vulnerable and impoverished victim. Rashi states that during their embrace at the well, Laban checked whether Jacob had a wallet with money or jewels on him.
Not only did Laban exploit his nephew physically but also emotionally. He gas-lighted him, undermining Jacob’s emotional state bit by bit; manipulating Jacob’s hope for love. Jacob was trapped and Laban drew the net around him until there was no escaping.

Today is Human Rights Shabbat with a particular focus on slavery. When we think of slavery, we think of chattel slavery through the lens of history. We think of ‘avadim hainu b’eretz Mitzrayim’ – ‘we were slaves in Egypt’. We think of the industrial nature of African slavery in the United States. We think of prisoners of war; of inmates in internment or concentration camps. And all that is true; those forms of slavery have existed and continue to exist. There is another type of nefarious slavery happening right under our noses, human trafficking. This is executed effectively through the manipulation of hope and love; targeting people who, like Jacob, were vulnerable and yearned for freedom, who perhaps had been cut-off from their own families and support systems, who are migrants and unfamiliar with their host culture and who have no way to escape the dire situation they are caught up in. It happens to young women (and men) from all over the world and it happens invisibly; we may see trafficked victims walk our high street or see them clean our offices, or we may not see them at all. According to a Home Office estimate, about 13,000 people are living in slavery in the UK alone, while over 45 million people are enslaved and trafficked worldwide.

The question remains, of course, what we can do. We can inform ourselves through organisations like Rene Cassin, The Jewish Voice for Human Rights, the sponsor of Human Rights Shabbat or Tzelem, the Rabbinic Call for Social and Economic Justice in the UK, as well as many general antislavery organisations active in the UK and beyond. We will have resources for you at the end of the service.
Apart from informing ourselves, we can make ethical choices – especially poignant around the holiday season – to buy ethically-produced and sourced products so that we are neither directly nor indirectly support businesses that use slave labour.

But more importantly, we can keep our eyes open. The devastatingly honest stories of our Patriarchs and our Matriarchs in the Torah remind us that abuse does not just happen in far-off places but manifests itself right under our noses. Perhaps abuse happens most when we least expect it and our ignorance is made an accomplice in the perpetration of this abuse. It may be as simple as striking up a friendly conversation with someone who looks vulnerable to you, or paying a little closer attention to what is happening in your own neighbourhood. It also means empowering our own loved ones – our sons and daughters, friends and neighbours – to be on guard for those who pander falsehoods and to bolster the self-esteem of the young women in our lives who might otherwise be lured into the dark consequences of honey traps.

Avadim hainu’ – ‘we were slaves’ is our tradition’s call into radical empathy, bold honesty and transformative action. The stories of our variegated tradition continue to offer us a perspective on both the pitfalls and great heights of the human condition. Our parashah starts with ‘vayetze’ – ‘and he went out’. May we be blessed to continue the work of redemption, lead people out of slavery and proclaim freedom in the land for all people, all over the world.

Shabbat shalom.

N.B. In the accompanying introduction I gave to the Torah reading itself, I focused on the ultra-marginalisation and hyper-invisibility of 'fourth world peoples' like Bilhah and Zilpah, the foremothers of our people who our tradition seems to overlook entirely. Our modern understandings of slavery may overlook the most vulnerable and invisible. Exploring that important topic, however, deserves a sermon (and study) in its own right.

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