Parashat Vayeseh- Beware the “Laban Syndrome”
Parashat Vayeseh tells of Yaakob Abinu’s experiences during the twenty years that he spent with his uncle, Laban. During that time, Yaakob married Laban’s daughters, begot many children, and worked for Laban as a shepherd, enduring very difficult conditions wrought by Laban’s dishonesty and guile. Finally, after twenty years, Yaakob took his family and his flocks, and set out to return home, to the Land of Israel. Laban pursued Yaakob, and after a heated exchange, they made a truce and agreed to part ways. The Torah relates that at that point, "Va’yashab Laban Li’mkomo" – "Laban returned to his place" (32:1).
The question arises as to why the Torah needed to inform us that Laban returned home. Was this not self-understood? Did we expect Laban to remain for the rest of his life on the road where he had caught up to Yaakob?
Rav Abraham Saba (1440-1508) explains that the Torah in this verse is not telling us about Laban’s geography, that he went back to his home in Haran. Rather, it is telling us that Laban remained the same person he had been previously.
For twenty years, Laban had a private audience with Yaakob Abinu, one of the greatest men who ever lived. The Sages speak of Yakaob as "Behir Ha’abot" – the "choicest" of the three patriarchs, a man whose image is engraved upon G-d’s heavenly throne. Being in the company of an outstanding Sadik, normally, has a profound impact upon a person. I recall the opportunity I had as a youngster to pray one morning with Rav Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), an experience that left an indelible impression upon me. Exposure to towering spiritual giants is exceedingly impactful. And yet, after Laban spent twenty years with Yaakob Abinu, he "returned to his place." He was the same corrupt, wily, evil person that he had been beforehand.
How does this happen? How could somebody be in the presence of a righteous person and not be impacted by it?
The answer is that Laban consciously resisted this influence. He made the decision that he did not need or want to grow, that he wanted to remain the same person. And somebody who is not interested in growing is not going to grow, even when exposed to spiritual giants – even Yaakob Abinu! – because he intentionally resists the influence that they exert.
I recall that many years ago there was a man who would attend my Se’uda Shelishit lecture each week. He would sit in the front row, and I could tell by his face and body language that he thoroughly enjoyed the talk. Suddenly, he stopped coming. After a while, I happened to meet him somewhere, and I asked why he had stopped attending the class, and whether he no longer found them enjoyable.
He explained that he enjoyed them very much, but that it was becoming impossible to hear the Torah insights I was sharing without being changed as a result – and he had no interest in changing. He wanted to stay the same as he was, and so he decided to stop attending the class, because if he continued hearing the words of Torah, he would be impacted by them.
This is what we might call the "Laban Syndrome" – the desire to specifically not change, not grow, not improve, not become better. When somebody makes a conscious decision not to change, then nothing will change him.
The next verse says, "Ve’Yaakob Halach Le’darko" – "Yaakob went along his way" (32:3). Whereas Laban remained the same as he was, Yaakob set out "along his way," seeking to advance, to progress, to grow even more. As great as he already was, he wanted to become even greater.
This is the example that we, the descendants of Yaakob Abinu, must follow. Rather than fall into the "Laban Syndrome," and remain stagnant, we are to always strive to learn more, to grow in our understanding of Torah and to grow in our observance of the laws and values of Torah. We should never feel fully content and satisfied with who we are now, but must rather always continue "along the way," seeking to become better and better, each day of our lives.