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The standard Pesach Haggadah has the following passage:

Go forth and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob!  For Pharaoh issued a decree against the male children only, but Laban sought to destroy all.
As a kid, I had trouble with this line.  It's clearly talking about Laban's actions in this week's parsha, which didn't seem to me to be all that terrible -- underhanded and dishonest, yes, but not destructive; not genuinely evil.  And in fact it's described as a sort of poetic justice, midah k'neged midah, for Jacob's deception of his father -- he takes his brother's place to get his blessing; the girl he expects to marry has her place taken by her sister.  (Both, incidentally, at the urging of a parent.  Laban and his sister Rebekah have that much in common.)

The worst aspects of Laban's behavior went right over my head at that age ... partly because I got bored once the marriage drama was past and the story started talking about sheep and goats.  But also partly because this was before I started reading about the history of unions.

(Continued below the striped sheep.)

Unions?  I hear you cry.  Where did unions come into it?

Well.  Learning about the rise of the labor movement was what made me start noticing things in terms of employer ethics.  And once reframed in that context, Laban stops looking anything like a harmless rogue and starts looking decidedly sinister.

Laban's first double-dealing -- swapping the older, less marriageable daughter for the requested younger one -- is one that Jacob (according to some interpretations) sees coming; when he asks for Rachel's hand in marriage as compensation for his labor, he specifies "Rachel, your daughter, the younger" (a phrase that has become proverbial for precise specification in contemporary Hebrew) so that Laban could not substitute some other Rachel, or a hastily-renamed older daughter.  What Jacob doesn't expect is that given no loopholes, Laban will openly break his agreement, and excuse himself by citing societal pressure:  "It is not done so in our country, to give the younger daughter before the firstborn."  The implication there, subtle but clear, is that Jacob will get no sympathy or support from any of Laban's neighbors if he tries to make an issue of this.  It's brought home rather sharply that Jacob is alone, a stranger here, with no support network; he has no recourse.

Later, after Jacob has married Rachel as well (and after a whole lot of babies are born), Laban reenters the picture when Jacob asks leave to go home with his wives and children.  Laban protests, saying that his wealth has increased since Jacob started working for him, and tells him to name his wages.  "What shall I give you?" he asks, and Jacob's response is "You shall not give me anything ... every speckled and spotted sheep and every brownish lamb, and every speckled goat, shall be my wages."  The Hebrew word for give is as potentially ambiguous as the English, but Jacob's correction makes it clear that he's aware of what Laban is trying to do: redefine Jacob's wages as largesse, as something Laban gives rather than pays.

The deal is made for the spotted and speckled lambs and kids -- and Laban promptly takes all the breeding sheep and goats that have spots or speckles, the ones likely to produce spotted and speckled young, and transfers them to another holding company his sons' flocks, three days away.

This is where Jacob introduces the stratagem of the speckled sticks, arguably a dirty trick of its own -- artificially inducing the flocks to bear speckled young, and thus increase his own share.  Do we defend this as legitimate on the grounds that he was only trying to claim his fair wages, or do we consider it cut from the same cloth as Laban's trickery?

To answer that, I'm going to skip ahead -- past the grumbling of Laban's sons that all Jacob's wealth was taken from their father's, and past Jacob fleeing with his family for fear of being prevented if he left openly -- and fetch up at the point where Jacob berates Laban for accusing him of theft.

38 These twenty years I have been with you. Your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks. 39 What was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you. I bore the loss of it myself. From my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. 40 There I was: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. 41 These twenty years I have been in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times.
If Jacob's description of his labor is to be considered accurate -- and Laban does not deny any of it -- his work has been hard, honest, and scrupulous, while his working conditions and compensation have been execrable.  And Laban's response to this?
The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine.
Laban is, in fact, That Boss.  The guy who fully believes that he has the right to do whatever he pleases with his own property, and who considers his workers and their pay his property as well; the guy who acknowledges how much of his increased wealth comes from his laborers, and in the same breath calls them takers; the guy whose entire idea of business ethics can be summed up in the word mine.

Did Laban intend to destroy Jacob, as that quote from the Hagaddah would have it?  I don't think so.  I think Laban intended to absorb Jacob; to keep him as part of his household, answerable to him.  That this would prevent Jacob from establishing his own independent household, and eventually his own nation ... I don't think that ever entered Laban's calculations.  The end result, nonetheless -- especially from the religious point of view -- might not have differed greatly from destruction.

ETA: Oh my goodness, Community Spotlight!  Thank you.  :)

Originally posted to Batya the Toon on Fri Nov 23, 2012 at 01:03 PM PST.

Also republished by Street Prophets , Elders of Zion, and Community Spotlight.

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