Vayetzei by Rabbi David Hartley Mark


Vayaytsay: An Evening with Laban, Jacob’s Father-in-Law

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark


Come in, come in, Stranger! Welcome to my humble tent. I am Laban, sheikh of this little tribe—look around my home! As you can see, I have two daughters, Leah and Rachel, a fine son-in-law, Jacob, and grandchildren enough. Sit here, by the fire; it will stop your shivering—yes, our Aramean desert nights can get cold enough, I’ll tell you! Ha-ha! Here, Leah, my dear—fetch our guest a big bowl of that red-bean stew—that will warm your bones, I’ll wager!

The sheep in the paddock outside? Oh, you have sharp eyes, to count all those spotted-and-speckled sheep? Um—to speak truth—and I never do otherwise, trust me—they are not mine. They are the property of my son-in-law, that young scoundrel, Jacob, over there in the corner, playing with his baby, Joseph, my youngest grandson. And the other children? Why, they are his, as well. How prolific his wife must be, you ask? Truth to tell, my Jacob—my junior business partner—has, not one, but two full-fledged wives, and two concubines, to boot! That, Stranger, is what makes his family so large—but I don’t fret; they are all my grandsons—oh, and one granddaughter, Dena—where has my little princess got to? I do hope that she is not poking around the tent of that Shechem, again….

How do I manage to feed and clothe all of them? Well, indeed, Stranger, it is difficult—so much so, that Jacob and his family may one day leave my hospitality—(calling to Jacob) how long has it been, Jakey, that you’ve worked for—I mean, lived with me? Over twenty years? (resuming speech with the Stranger) Well, then, I would bet, they might leave—oh, at most any time. Still, I will never forget all the fine years we spent together—Jacob marrying my two fine daughters, taking to concubine the girls’ serving-maids, and building up his flocks! Ha! One could take pride in the accomplishments of such a boy—I mean, man—and I tell you, Stranger, it is as if he were my own flesh and blood! Such pride I take in him….

Any problems between us? (Suspiciously) Why do you ask? You’re not—forgive me—a spy for King Abimelech, are you? Ha-ha! Just joking…. Well, yes, it is crowded here, under my tent, but one must accommodate family, say I. Still, what a curious Stranger you are—you persist in your queries! Well, then, nothing asked, nothing answered, as my father, bless him, used to say—

There is but one area of contention (whispering, while glancing, from time to time, at Jacob, still busy with the infants off in the tent-corner)—this Invisible God that Jacob worships—to speak truth, it puts my neighbors off. They are all good Baal-and-Ishtar worshipers, just like me, the king, and (I assume) yourself, O Stranger. I cannot understand how Jacob can stick to just one God—it makes no sense, if you ask me. Where would we all be, had we not a god of the sky, a god of the river, a goddess of the harvest, and so on? Why, how could one God, no matter how mighty, manage all those different things? We’ve had many an argument on this subject, Jacob and I, and, in the end, must agree to disagree—he is a stubborn fellow, and, truth to tell (there I go again), so am I.

Why should Jacob leave me? Well, it’s been a long time that we’ve been together—and now, with his flocks so large and servants so numerous, it’s using up my precious resources—the grass of the fields, my provender, and my well of water, not to mention those high property taxes I must pay to King Abimelech—don’t get me started about property taxes. The king has promised to overhaul our taxation system, but, just between us, I don’t believe a word of it. Those tax changes never benefit the small tradesman, such as I am. The king always takes the lion’s share; he is, after all, the king. All hail His Majesty, Abimelech! (spits on the ground)

I see that you’ve made short work of your bowl of stew—would you care for some more? No? Well then, I do hope that you’ll join me in a cup of barley beer. Yes? Well then, Rachel! Go fetch me and my guest two cups of beer, from the barrel in the barn—oh, sorry, my dear—I see that you are nursing your new little prince—Stranger! What is a father to do with such recalcitrant daughters? Time was, a man could thrash his children into obeying—yes, those were the good old days….

Will you spend the night with us, Stranger? Charge? No, no charge—what do you take me for? I am but a humble shepherd and farmer, practicing good, old-fashioned Aramean hospitality. Still, I could not miss that fat moneybag on your belt—it clinks when you move—by Baal’s beard, I daresay it’s full of gold, isn’t it? Oh, you won’t say—yes, yes, none of my business; you are right. But your fingers and wrists  sparkle with jeweled rings and bracelets of pure gold!. Would there be a copper or two in your purse for me, Honest Laban, for your drink and sup? Ha-ha! Just joking, Stranger….

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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