When did the Egyptian exile begin?
That's an easy one, say Hebrew-school students the world over: When Jacob and his sons fled a famine and were reunited with Joseph. Right? Not according to this week's portion.
As Moses finishes up his final address to the Jewish people prior to their entering the Land of Israel, he tells them that the first thing they should do is offer a selection of their first produce at the Tabernacle. As they do so, they should recite an interesting passage: "An Aramean [would have] destroyed my father, and he descended to Egypt and sojourned there. ... "
Jewish tradition identifies this Aramean as Laban, the father of Rachel and Leah who used a combination of subterfuge and outright lies to extract years of labor from Jacob. He, the Passover Haggadah indicates, set the exile in motion with his desire to wipe out Jacob and his descendants.
So when the Jewish people finally enter the land and experience their first harvest, says the Torah, they should give thanks to the Almighty and his kindness in reversing a whole sequence of bad events that began with Laban.
But who was Laban?
The Haggadah tells us that he was more evil than Pharaoh, who only wanted to kill Jewish newborn boys. Laban, on the other hand, sought to completely annihilate Jacob's progeny.
Curiously, however, nowhere in the Torah's narrative in the book of Genesis is this plan mentioned. Instead, Rachel's father is depicted as a shrewd, if dishonest, businessman. Unseemly he may be, but he's no criminal mastermind on the order of, say, an evil king intent on cold-blooded murder.
In addition to the commandment to offer first fruits, this week's portion lists a sequence of blessings guaranteed those who uphold the Torah's laws, as well as a lengthy series of progressive curses that will befall those who don't. Included in the blessings is the general command to "go in His ways," i.e., to emulate the ways of the Divine.
Maimonides explains this concept as demanding from people a constant awareness of the Divine attributes: God is kind; therefore, we should be kind. God is compassionate and gracious; thus, we, too, should be compassionate and gracious.
That's where the contrast between Laban and Jacob comes in. What set Laban apart was that at the core of his being, he was cool and calculating. When he was nice to Jacob, it was to either cheat him of something or achieve some other end. It was all about him.
Jacob, on the other hand, constantly nullified his sense of self. Even when he knew Laban was out to get him, he subjugated his being and worked for him. Everything he did was to further the cause of the Divine promise given to Abraham and Isaac.
In daily life, the pull of Laban's thinking is incredibly strong, and it can lead a person to become trapped in his or her own head -- to become exiled to a place where might makes right, where the end justifies the means.
The antidote sums up the spirit of Jacob, who saw in his life a higher purpose and the infinitude of Divine benevolence, and strove to emulate it in order that his descendants would one day know of exile no more.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: jrunyan@ chabad.org.