There is no doubt that Laban is the villain in this week's parshah. He takes advantage of Jacob's intense love for Rachel to make Jacob an indentured servant, and then deceives him by substituting Leah for Rachel and extracting another seven years of unpaid labor from his nephew.
Later, when Jacob's unpaid service has been completed and they agree on a price for Jacob's continued work, Laban tries to deceive Jacob once more, so that his reward will be minimized. Finally, Jacob becomes so concerned about Laban's intentions that he waits for a time when Laban is three days' journey from home to flee with his wives and children.
Yes, Laban is the villain of our parshah, and his cruelest bit of deceit is the substitution of Leah for Rachel, the woman for whom Jacob had labored for seven years. And when the outraged Jacob confronts him — "why did you deceive me?" — Laban feigns offended innocence and replies, "It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older."
Many commentators see this as a not-so-veiled slap at Jacob, who, through deception, had taken the blessing that was meant for his older brother, and that's certainly part of it. But Ramban (Nachmanides), the 13th century Spanish commentator, offers an additional insight into Laban's words.
'My Hands Were Tied'
He writes: "In my view, Laban spoke with guile. He told Jacob that things were not done in this way in our place, implying that the community would not let him act like that since it violated their conventions."
In other words, according to Ramban, Laban was saying, "Look, if it were up to me, of course, I would have let you marry Rachel, as we agreed, but I'm just one man and I can't fight the entire community. I'm really sorry, but my hands were tied."
Of course, if Laban were truly as innocent as he claimed to be, he would have told Jacob all this before they had sealed their bargain and before Jacob had given him seven years' of hard work for the sacred privilege of marrying Rachel.
The late Israeli teacher Nehama Leibowitz writes: "Ramban teaches us an important lesson. One of the characteristic signs of a wicked man … is the flight from personal responsibility for the deed he has perpetrated. … [And if] he cannot deny his part in it … he regards himself as forced into it because the community or some vague body to which he belongs compelled him to act thus."
Laban is the archetype of the wrongdoer who says, "You can't blame me — everybody does it –it's not my fault — 'they' made me do it." "Everybody adds a few bucks to their insurance claims — the company expects you to do it." "I don't have any choice — everybody cheats on exams, and if I didn't cheat, I'd fall behind and I wouldn't get into a good college." "But, officer, everyone else was speeding — and they were going faster than I was." "Hey, I was only following orders."
But the Talmud insists: "Ain shaliach l'devar aveirah — There is no agency in a case of sin." You can't do something wrong and claim you were only acting as an agent for someone else, whether that someone else is a specific person or the amorphous "everyone." If you are given an immoral order, you are obligated not to follow it; and if you do follow it, you are no less guilty than the one who gave it.
If "everyone" really is doing something wrong, that doesn't make it right or give you permission to do it, too. In fact, the Torah teaches that we have an obligation to try to correct people who are behaving badly or unethically (although this applies only when there is a possibility that the wrongdoer might listen and change his or her ways).
Human beings rationalize. We create all sorts of apparently plausible reasons for doing things that we know we shouldn't. But while your rationalization may fool some of the people some of the time, God knows the truth — and so do you.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.