Pesach, Lavan and Yaakov
In the Pesach Haggadah we are supposed to relive the experience of transitioning from slavery to freedom. A major part of this process is telling over the story of yetziat Mitzrayim; this section of the Haggadah commences with the verse, “Arami oved avi vayered Mitzrayima.” “An Arami destroyed my father, and he descended to Mitzrayim.” The commentaries point out that “Arami” refers to Lavan, and they ask why we begin retelling the story with these words, referring to Yaakov Avinu’s stay at Lavan’s house. A possible answer might be that the verse explicitly says “vayered Mitzrayimah” —and he descended to Mitzrayim — but there are many other verses that also say we went to Mitzrayim. In what way is the story of Lavan connected to the mitzvah of retelling the story of yetziat Mitzrayim?
The commentaries explain that one of the reasons why the Torah includes the stories of the avot is to teach us to follow in their righteous ways. As Chazal tell us, “Derech eretz kadmah laTorah”, appropriate behavior precedes the Torah. Before delving into the mitzvot of the Torah we must fix our character traits. Therefore, the Torah begins with the stories of the forefathers. On a deeper level, though, Chazal teach us the principle, “ma’asei avot siman l’banim”,the actions of the forefathers are a precursor for the children (Midrash Tanchuma, see Ramban on Bereishet 12:6). Every detail that is mentioned regarding the avot hints to what will follow to their descendents. Perhaps a few examples will crystallize this idea.
The story of the abduction of Dina and the retaliation that followed by Shimon and Levi illustrates this principle, as it hinted to the story of Chanukah that occurred more than a thousand years later (see Ohr Gedalyahu, Vayishlach). How so?
- The city of Shechem attempted to deny any differences between themselves and the Jewish People by accepting upon themselves circumcision. The Greeks, too, outlawed the performance of circumcision to deny any differences between themselves and the Jews. In both circumstances, their intentions were to infiltrate the Jewish world and influence them with their corrupt thinking by encouraging them to intermingle with the other nations.
- Just like the war between Shimon and Levi with Shechem resulted from Dina’s abduction, the war between the Chashmonaim and the Greeks also started from the attempted abduction of the kohen gadol’s daughter, Yehudit.
- Just like Shimon and Levi defeated the entire city of Shechem by themselves, the few Chashmonaim defeated the mighty army of Greece.
- Following the story of Dina, Yaakov asked his household to get rid of any avodah zarah from their midst and ascend to Bet El to build a mizbe’ach. Similarly, following the Chashmonaim’s victory over Greece they purified the Beit Hamikdash from the Greek’s avodah zarah, and rededicated the Beit Hamikdash.
Based on this principle, the Vilna Gaon explains that the story of Yaakov and Lavan is the precursor for yetziat Mitzrayim. Yaakov’s stay at Lavan’s house mirrored the Jewish nation’s enslavement in Mitzrayim. Furthermore, Yaakov’s escape from Lavan mirrored the Jewish People’s escape from Mitzrayim.
- Yaakov worked tirelessly day and night tending to Lavan’s sheep, as Yaakov said regarding his working conditions, “I was consumed by the heat during the day, and frost by night, and my sleep drifted from my eyes.”In Mitzrayim, too, the Jewish People worked day and night under ruthless conditions for Pharaoh.
- Lavan changed Yaakov’s wages time and time again, as Yaakov said to his wives, “Your father [Lavan] mocked me and changed my wage ten times, but Gd did not let him harm me. In Mitzrayim, Pharaoh also tricked the Jews to work for him by promising wages, but then ordered them to work without compensation.
- Just as Yaakov left Lavan’s house with great wealth, the Jewish People left Mitzrayim with great wealth.
- When Yaakov left Lavan’s home, Lavan chased him. Similarly when the Jewish People left Mitzrayim, Pharaoh and his army chased after them. Furthermore, just like Pharaoh began his chase on the third day (because the Jewish people were supposed to go for just three days) and caught up with them on the seventh, Lavan also chased Yaakov on the third day of his absence and caught up with him on the seventh.
The Vilna Gaon explains that this is the reason why the Pesach Haggadah tells us to “go out and study what Lavan wanted to do to Yaakov”. In order to understand the story of yetziat Mitzrayim we need to study the ma’asei avot siman lebanim that preceded it; this was the story of Yaakov in Lavan’s home.
Interestingly, when the Chida addresses the connection between yetziat Mitzrayim and the story of Lavan, he quotes the Alshich who says that Lavan’s actions directly caused the enslavement in Mitzrayim. The Alshich explains that when Lavan switched Leah for Rachel in their marriages with Yaakov, Yosef — Rachel’s firstborn — was no longer Yaakov’s firstborn. This being the case, Yaakov’s favoritism toward Yosef, had Yosef been his firstborn, would have been normal. Since, however, Lavan manipulated Yaakov’s marriage, Yaakov also married Leah, and she bore him Reuven, his actual firstborn. Thus, the favoritism Yaakov showed Yosef (the youngest of the brothers at the time) was unfounded, and thus led to their brothers’ jealousy. This jealousy led to Yosef’s sale to Mitzrayim — the eventual cause for Yaakov’s, and essentially the entire Jewish nation’s, descent to Mitzrayim (see the Chida’s Geulat Olam and the Alshich’s Torat Moshe on Devarim 26:5).
Combining the Vilna Gaon’s answer and the Chida’s answer together clearly explains why the story of Lavan and Yaakov is the perfect place to start with. This was the both the root of how it happened, by serving as the ma’aseh avot siman l’banim, and also the direct cause.