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Kee Tavo 5782-2022: Watch Out for Laban, He’s More Dangerous than Pharaoh!

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Sep 12, 2022
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(updated and revised from Kee Tavo 5763-2003)


Parashat Kee Tavo is an “ominous” parasha. It is one of two Torah portions that features the תּוֹכָחָה—To’cheh’cha – G-d’s threat of terrible punishment for the People of Israel for failing to heed His words.


Interestingly, the parasha starts on an entirely different theme: the confessional recited in the Temple by those who bring בִּכּוּרִיםBikkurim-the first ripened fruits of the field. In a moving and festive ceremony, Jewish farmers express their gratitude to the Al-mighty for His beneficence and for His guiding role throughout Jewish history.


As part of the ceremony, the farmer takes back his basket of first-ripened fruits that he has given to the Kohen (priest) and makes a brief pronouncement. This compact outline of Jewish history underscores the fact that without G-d’s intervention there would be no land that is sacred to the Jewish people, let alone the crops from which the people of Israel now benefit.


As part of the declaration, the farmer recites the words: אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, (Deuteronomy 26:5) which, according to Rashi, means: “An Aramean tried to destroy my father.” Those who are familiar with the Passover Haggadah may recognize this phrase, because it plays an important role in retelling the story of the slavery of Egypt.


Rashi asserts that “Aramean” refers to the clever “con artist” Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law, who tries to deceive Jacob at every turn. Were it not for G-d’s intervention, our forefather Jacob would have ended up penniless and possibly dead.


Our commentators tell us that the story of Laban is included in the Passover Haggadah in order to teach us that Laban, our close relative–father of Rachel and Leah, presumably our friend, is actually more dangerous than Pharaoh. After all, with Pharaoh–what you see is what you get–a virulent anti-Semite, who makes no bones about his public desire to destroy the Jewish people.


Laban, on the other hand, feigns love for Jacob and his family, but deep in his heart rages a seething desire to do away with them. Our rabbis tell us that Laban puts us off guard, he appears to embrace and love Israel, his children and grandchildren, after all, they are his flesh and blood! But the blood relationship serves as paltry protection from the likes of Laban!


It is universally known that Pharaoh hates the Jews and wants to destroy them, so Israel is on the alert. But few of us would suspect that Laban, our next-of-kin, harbors nefarious intentions.


Many of us are concerned, and justifiably so, about the recent proliferation and increase of perfidious anti-Semitic attacks, not only in Israel, but the world over. Despite our surprise at the extent of worldwide anti-Semitism, Jews are always on the alert for their overt enemies. For overt enemies, we can always improve our security and heighten our vigilance. The greater threat, however, is the threat that we don’t hear, see or smell–the threat that is taking an incredible toll on our people. The Laban of today is assimilation, that subtle but pernicious enemy, that is “killing” far more Jews through kindness, than were ever killed by violence and murder.


One of the reasons that assimilation is so profoundly impacting on our children today is because our young people do not appreciate what Judaism has to offer. Young Jews are defecting not out of disenchantment with Judaism. They are walking away due to ignorance! Which, of course, compounds the problem.


Several years ago, while on a lecture tour to Australia, I had an opportunity to spend several days on Oahu, Hawaii (these are the perks of doing mitzvot), a most enchanting island—though not very conducive to religious growth or observance. I spent one afternoon visiting the Polynesian Village, a “must see” tourist attraction. One particular show at the village left me spiritually agitated. The show highlighted Polynesian culture and featured a brilliant performance by a young Polynesian, a descendent of one of the native Hawaii tribes, who attempted to explain his culture to the hordes of tourists. I could not imagine how this young man expected to hold the attention of the tourists for very long, given the fact that his culture did not appear to me to be very intellectually rich, although it must have been very meaningful to the natives and to many others. This was especially true since the performer was operating under a severe handicap–he had to convey his message simultaneously in English and Japanese, since many in the audience were from Japan.


The young man proceeded to shimmy up a huge palm tree, remove a large coconut, and while still high up in the tree, slice the coconut open with a sharp blade and start a fire by rubbing the flax of the coconut skin together. The audience was enthralled, amused, and duly impressed. The performer then displayed and demonstrated the use of ancient Polynesian tribal war weapons, performed some native war dances, and emitted a series of native war cries.


I know that it is not at all politically correct to be judgmental about other people’s culture, but at the time I couldn’t help thinking to myself of an incident that occurred way back in 1835, when O’Connell, the powerful Irish parliamentarian, attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s Jewish ancestry. Disraeli replied without hesitation: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman [O’Connell] were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”


We Jews have so much of which to be proud, but our young people are completely unaware of the enchanting treasures of our heritage. While other ancient tribes were harvesting coconuts, we Jews were teaching the world לֹא תִּרְצָח, Thou shalt not murder and the sanctity of human and animal life. While others were rubbing flax together to make fire, Jews were revolutionizing the world with the Torah’s teachings about caring for the poor, the infirm, the orphan, and the widow. While others were becoming more proficient at the art of war, our Torah was preaching, 36 times, to love the stranger.


We know what Pharaoh wants to do to us, so we can protect ourselves. But, watch out for brother Laban, the wily Aramean, who is always out there waiting to defeat us. The only way to protect ourselves from Laban is to be knowledgeable enough to resist and respond to his indefatigable efforts to seduce us away from our very special, glorious heritage.


Only proper Jewish education can neutralize those efforts.


May you be blessed.


https://rabbibuchwald.njop.org

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As part of the Bikkurim declaration, the celebrants stated that, "An Aramean tried to destroy my father." The Torah thus sees the Aramean, Laban, as more dangerous than Pharaoh. The fact that Pharaoh wants to do us in, is well known, so we can be on our guard. Our brother Laban, however, the wily Aramean, is always out there waiting for us, feigning love, conspiring to defeat us. We need to always be on watch for him.

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Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Emily and Gavi Unger in honor of the birth of their daughter, Naomi Chaya and by Dr. Alexander & Meryl Weingarten in memory of Dr. Alvin M. Lashinsky, Avraham Moshe ben Meir Hakohen, on the occasion of his yahrzeit on the 19th of Kislev and in honor of their children, Mark, Michael, Julie, Marnie and Michelle and by the Cohen, Kraut and Silver families in memory of Elaine Bienenfeld Silver z”l and by Solomon Monderer for a refuah shleimah for Leora bat Rifka and for a refuah shleimah for Yehuda Baruch Noam ben Tova Batya betoch shar cholei Yisrael