“Go out and learn what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to Yaakov, our father; Pharaoh only decreed [death] on the males but Lavan sought to uproot everything.” With this rather perplexing and surprising teaching the Pesach Haggadah begins the central section of the maggid, the telling of the story of the Exodus.
But was Lavan really worse than Pharaoh? Can one compare a despot who ordered Jewish children to be thrown to the Nile, one who was willing to let his country be destroyed rather than free the captive Jews (sound tragically familiar?) to the actions of Lavan? Lavan may not have been the nicest guy in the world but he did take in his fleeing nephew, likely saving his life by doing so. He did give his two daughters in marriage to Yaakov, even if not in the most straight forward way and clearly made no attempt to kill Jewish children.
It would appear that this statement is a bit of Rabbinic hyperbole – a relatively common feature of Rabbinic Midrash. Yet at the same time the rabbis are warning that while Lavan may not be as cruel as Pharaoh he may be just as dangerous – perhaps even more so.
Let us take a look both at Lavan the person and Lavan the idea. Biblical names are much more than a name; they express an idea, symbols and are often prophetic, leaving one to wonder if many a Biblical name was given to them not by their parents but much later by the Torah. Lavan means white, the symbol of purity. It is the colour of clothes worn when the Kohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. It is the colour of honesty as any spot of dirt clearly shows up.
Lavan the person was anything but his name. Conniving, sneaky and full of deception, Lavan’s name is both ironic and a so subtle hint of his hypocritical nature. We first meet Lavan when Avraham’s servant is sent to find a wife for Yitzchak. “Now Rebekah had a brother whose name was Lavan. Lavan ran out to the man at the spring when he saw the nose-ring and the bands on his sister’s arms” (Breisheet 24:29-30). As Rashi notes, “Why did he run and what did he run for? When he saw the nose-ring and the bands he said, ‘this must be a rich man’, as he focused his eye on his money.”
Like Lot, his first cousin once removed, he was a man who loved money and was willing to take advantage of others to make more. Yaakov had to work for seven years before he could marry Rachel – or so he thought. Yet the Torah itself limits the working period of a slave to six years. Is this the way to treat someone who in his own words is “truly my bone and flesh” (Breisheet 29:14). No wonder our Rabbis claim that “he ran to greet him [Yaakov], hugged him and kissed him” (Breisheet 29:13) because he thought he was coming with lots of money. After all, Avraham’s servant made it abundantly clear that the Abrahamic family was quite wealthy.
Like all tricksters he played fast and loose with his word. “Your father has cheated me, changing my wages time and again. G-d, however, would not let him do me harm”, Yaakov tells Leah and Rachel as he explains why they must leave Lavan’s home. For Lavan this was nothing less than betrayal. Portraying himself as a loving father, doting grandfather and grateful employer – as opposed to the self-serving Yaakov – Lavan exclaims, “Why did you flee in secrecy and mislead me and not tell me? I would have sent you off with festive music, with timbrel and lyre. You did not even let me kiss my sons and daughters good-by! (Breisheet 31:27-28). Somehow his words ring just a bit hollow.
Of course, his greatest act of not living up to his name is in substituting Leah for Rachel despite his agreement to have Rachel marry Yaakov. Compounding the sin many times over, he proclaimed total innocence, even piety in his deceit. “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older” (29:26). If this also served as a dig to Yaakov – the younger who took the blessings meant for the elder – all the better.
Perhaps worst of all is how Lavan rubbed off on Yaakov. Fleeing from the home of Yitzchak and Rivka, Yaakov dreams of heavenly ladders, with angels accompanying him on his journey. Some 20 years later, “I had a dream in which I saw that the he-goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled, and mottled” (Breisheet 31:10). When the spiritual becomes material, it is time to leave.
Pharaoh and Lavan represent two types of danger, the physical and the spiritual, dangers later reflected in the holidays of Purim and Chanukah. The Haggadah brings them together as we celebrate the physical survival and the spiritual renewal of the Jewish people. Pharaoh was open with his hostility while Lavan stabbed us behind our backs. It is that which is hidden which often times is much more dangerous. While Pharaoh threatened the survival of the Jewish people, Lavan was a threat to Judaism, aiming to make it stillborn. While not as evil, it is no less dangerous.
In recent weeks we have been attacked by those worse than Pharaoh – those who would, if they could G-d forbid, murder every Jew; men, women and children. At the same time the Jewish people have come together like never before in recent memory, ensuring the Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people live forever. Netzach Yisrael lo yishaker (Shmuel 1, 15:29) the eternity of the Jewish people is no lie.
 Eisav makes no attempt to confront Yaakov all the years that Yaakov was in Lavan’s home – presumably because he was protected there. While when they did meet 22 years later the meeting went well, it is uncertain if that was a last minute change of heart. Either way, 22 years earlier it is quite clear that Eisav would have killed Yaakov given the chance. And as long as Yaakov was in Lavan’s home he did not have that chance.
 While the Torah’s stories are about individuals, they are included in the Torah only because the stories are templates and symbolic of ideas that apply in every generation. The stories of Yaakov and Eisav are less about Yaakov and Eisav who lived 3,800 years ago and more about the relationship throughout history between Jews and non-Jews. Unless the stories are translated into current events, they would have, G-d forbid, little meaning and application. And that is the role of Midrash, to add details that are not in the text – and often could not be – to speak to people in their own time. Eisav of the Chumash is not such a terrible person whereas Eisav of the Midrash is. This is one application of the notion Maaseh Avot siman lebanim, the actions of our ancestors are a template for their children.
 I thank Rabbi Zvi Grumet for this insight.
 It is interesting to note that on Pesach we celebrate that we are no longer slaves to Pharaoh emphasizing our physical freedom. We introduce Lavan as we prepare to recite the verses the Israeli farmer would say as he brought the bounty of the Land to the Temple, highlighting our spiritual home.