How often have we found ourselves in situations where we’ve wanted to respond harshly or angrily to someone, especially if we are falsely accused of doing or not doing something? Our tempers rage and we often end up responding in a manner that we may later come to regret.
In this week’s parasha, Jacob and his family flee the house of Laban, with all their belongings in the darkness of night, following some unpleasant rumblings and Laban’s growing antagonism towards Jacob. Upon hearing that Jacob had fled, Laban gathers some of his troops and sets off in pursuit of Jacob.
Laban confronts Jacob and he demands to know why Jacob had fled, not affording Laban an opportunity to farewell his daughters and grandchildren. He then goes on to accuse Jacob of stealing his idols, his gods (which had been taken, but not by Jacob and he would not have been aware that Rachel actually took them).
Jacob takes offence at this accusation, and challenges Laban to search for his belongings amongst the members of his camp. Laban does so, but cannot find his missing idols, as Rachel devises a clever way to keep them hidden.
When he returns, Jacob confronts Laban and he asks; “What is my crime, what is my guilt that you should pursue me? You rummaged through all my things; what have you found of all your household objects? … These twenty years I have spent in your service, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried, nor did I feast on rams from your flock“ (from Genesis 31:36-42). He continues to explain his dedication of service and the lengths he went to, so that he could maintain the best possible relationship with his father-in-law and employer. While being firm with Laban, at no stage did Jacob lose his temper.
Midrash Lekach Tov teaches us; “Take note of the strictness of fathers and not the meekness of sons. After all, Jacob is angry with him [Laban] in his heart. And yet he speaks to him words of reconciliation”.
Despite clearly being angry, Jacob chose to redirect his anger and address Laban in a manner that did not further escalate or derail the delicate situation.
Following this tense confrontation, Laban realises how much this has impacted everyone concerned, and he changes his approach. “Come, then, let us make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness [God] between you and me” (Genesis 31:44). Laban now seeks to make a covenant, a binding agreement between himself and Jacob, so that the needs of both parties are addressed in a more appropriate manner.
By maintaining composure and not letting the matter get out of control, Jacob is able to direct the situation towards an amicable outcome.
Perhaps we could learn to act like Jacob (at least in this scenario), and think about how we could react differently when faced with volatile situations and heated arguments. As we learn from the Shelosh Esrei Middot (the Thirteen Attributes of God’s Mercy) a theme of the Yamim Noraim and part of our Torah service; “Adonai, Adonai, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
Reverend Sam Zwarenstein