Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Color of Evil - Reflections on Parashat VaYetzei 5776

(Genesis 28:10 - 32:3)

If you had to pick a color to represent evil, what would you pick?

Let's see, something really menacing; maybe black, like the SS uniform, or black and red, like the Nazi Swastika, or just blood red, like the flag of the USSR.

In this week's Torah portion, we discover that the color of evil - is white. 

That's curious, because white is generally associated with purity, goodness and holiness:
Come, let us struggle together; though your sins are red as scarlet, I will purify you to become as white as snow. (Isaiah 1:18)
In our parashah, though, the archenemy of Jacob the Patriarch is his Uncle Laban, and in Hebrew, Laban means white. What gives?

First of all, let's be clear that Laban was one bad dude. He was an idol worshipper; he was a cheat, a thief, and a sexual predator; he was a tyrannical and domineering force in his household and was a master manipulator, akin to Mrs. Boynton in Christie's Appointment with Death. For example, Laban coerced Rachel to allow Leah to sneak into her marital bed on her wedding night, thus forfeiting her own happiness to acquiesce to her father's twisted subterfuges.

He is known as Laban the Aramean; but the Midrash points out that the Hebrew letters of "Aramean" also spell out "treachery" or "deceiver"; the kind of guy who changes the rules mid-game in his favor when he is starting to lose. In other words, he was a deceiver, head of a clan of liars, comfortable in a society of treachery. 

So distrustful of each other were they, that the shepherds had to lock the wells to prevent people stealing water. They only drew water once a day when everyone was present to unlock the well together. Distrust and verify.

According to the Midrash, Laban was the grandfather of Bilaam the Wicked Sorcerer, who was cut from the same malevolent cloth.

So why is his name "White as the Driven Snow?"

The Torah is coming to teach us a very important lesson.

Except in comic books, evil rarely self-identifies. It doesn't run it's banner up a flagpole like Darth Vader or Lex Luthor or Loki or even Doofenschmirtz Evil, Incorporated.

Image result for doofenshmirtz evil incorporated

Unlike the bad guys in the movies, real evil prefers to lurk in the shadows; concealed and free to destroy without attracting attention or drawing much scrutiny. Real-life villains smile to your face while furtively sabotaging your work. In the real world, evil almost always cloaks itself in white; like Laban, it wraps itself in the white tallit, looking to all appearances like goodness itself. 

The thief is only taking what he is entitled to because he is under-appreciated and underpaid.

Violent men beat women because "they had it coming."

Drug dealers need money for baby's new shoes.

Sexual predators think only of their own need, and are utterly unconcerned with their victims.

Laban is the face of modern evil; he is the archetypal narcissist; of people who navigate their way through life according to the dictum of "what is good for me is ethical." 

Towards the end of the parashah, Jacob makes a deal with Laban, in which Jacob gets the garbage animals of the flock as his wages, while continuing to manage Laban's flocks. Laban agrees because it's a deal strongly stacked in his favor. But Jacob deftly turns the seconds, the irregulars, the throw-away animals of the flock into a small fortune. Laban becomes angry and jealous; not because he lost money on the deal, but because Jacob also prospered in a deal where only Laban was supposed to come out on top. 

Jacob skedaddles, and Laban pursues and overtakes Jacob and his slow-moving caravan, laden down as it was with a dozen children and thousands of animals. There is a confrontation, and in a white-hot rage, Laban sputters: "The women belong to me, your children belong to me, your flocks belong to me; everything you have built for yourself is mine!" (Genesis 31:23)

For a moment, Laban lets the white veil slip, revealing the real Laban underneath, the ugliness and perversity of his thoughts and actions. As the verse states: "He who says: what is yours is mine and what is mine is mine, that person is an evildoer." (Avot 5:13) 

Had the A-lmighty not stayed his hand, Laban would have massacred Jacob and his clan right then and there. In his all-consuming jealousy and hate, he would have gleefully murdered his own daughters and grandchildren; a regrettable expedient, but necessary to grab the wealth that Laban rationalized belonged to him. 

Does this sound at all familiar? Hitler justified his monstrous behavior convinced that 'Providence' favored him. Stalin had excellent justifications in his own mind to murder 40 million people during the Red Purges of the 1930's. 

Modern Jew-hatred, manifest in the BDS movement and Code Pink, cloaks itself in the sanctimonious and hypocritical shroud of "Justice for Palestine."

Islamic crazy people who behead infidels, blow up discotheques and soccer stadiums and turn children into sex slaves are convinced that they are justified in doing the will of their diety.

Evil always tries to claim the moral high ground.

That is why Judaism rarely addresses evil as a thing, as some external, independent force in the world which we must enjoin in combat. Because guess what? When we objectify evil, we give ourselves a pass for the evil we do in our own lives. Freddy Kruger? Jeffrey Dahmer? That's bad. But my water cooler gossip? Nah...

Instead, Judaism almost always speaks of chet, of sin; of the individual decision to choose good or evil, right or wrong, mitzvah or chet. We speak not of evil, but of the evildoer.

The decision-making algorithm we employ on a day-to-day basis cannot be based on human intellect and twisted rationalizations, but on an absolute moral code that remains unchanged over time. 

We live in a world that has discarded the notions of absolute truth, of good and of evil. We are now taught everyone that has their own truth; that we all have a 'narrative', each one equally valid as the next. The task of the modern ethicist is narrative management, i.e., in the absence of absolute right or wrong, of developing rules to keep the contradictory and competitive narratives out of conflict. 

Take a look at progressive Western societies today and the world at large and let me know how that's working out.

To the contrary, the true nature of evil is manifest (or absent) in the hundreds of micro-choices we make each and every day. Evil is not some far-off disembodied force; it is all too close at hand, if we choose to give it power.

Because that's the dirty little secret about Uncle Laban: evil is not incorporated - it's a member of the family.

Shabbat Shalom.

- To read an earlier insight on this parasha, click HERE.

- Please join us for Torah Study Tuesday evenings at 8:00 pm at the Starbucks on Schoenersville Road in Bethlehem, PA. Every week, we discuss the parasha, current events and the relevance of the weekly Torah reading to real life. Just bring your sense of humor and love of coffee (or tea?) [smile]

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