Haggadot of Maharal

Pesach 2012 / 5772
Pesach Teaching

Based on the Haggadot of Maharal[1] and Ari[2]

Sarah Yehudit Schneider

צא ולמד מה בקש לבן הארמי לעשות ליעקב אבינו, שפרעה לא גזר אלא על הזכרים ולבן בקש לעקור את הכל שנאמר, ארמי אובד אבי…

Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean planned to do to our father Yaakov! Pharoah decreed that only the male children [should be put to death], but Lavan wanted to uproot the whole [Jewish nation], as is written: “The Aramean sought to destroy my forefather…” (Deut 26:5). Passover Haggada

Lavan is a complicated archetype; you might call him the trickster. Lavan is the father of Yaakov’s two wives, Leah and Rachel and his boss for twenty years.  The Torah depicts him as a seasoned swindler—leading Yaakov to believe that he was marrying Rachel and then substituting Leah instead. And when Yaakov asked to be paid for his twenty years of shepherding—for turning Lavan’s meager flock into multiple droves—Lavan reneged on his promises ten times, determined to finagle a better deal.

Granted, Lavan was an unrepentant crook, but was he more malevolent than Essav, Yishmael, Pharoah or Amalek?  It seems strange to single him out here as the archenemy of the Jewish people. He seems more of an irritant than an existential threat.

Maharal explains that Lavan was the first one to hate Yaakov (and by extension, Israel) for no reason. Yaakov had only done Lavan good: He had increased Lavan’s wealth and, as his son-in-law twice over, had propagated Lavan’s genes with abundance to the next generation (through his twelve sons and uncounted daughters). And despite this, or actually, perhaps, because of this—because of the envy it stirred in Lavan’s dark heart—he repaid bad for good and plotted Yaakov’s ruin.

In this sense Lavan becomes the prototype of the irrational component of anti-semitism, the Jew-hatred that pops up for no good reason, in every generation and every land. And so, says the Ibn Ezra, that is why the verb in the verse above appears grammatically in the “continuous present” (אובד/destroys), as if to say: True, Lavan did not actually harm Yaakov but, as an archetype, Lavan (driven by envy) eternally seeks Yaakov’s demise.  Lavan becomes the cosmic wellsprings of anti-semitism that pursues Israel through history like a rabid dog.

And it is interesting to note the progression of Lavan’s malice for that, too, is part of the archetype of anti-semitism.

  • At first Lavan is beholden to Yaakov and acknowledges his debt: “And Lavan said to [Yaakov], ‘I beg you, if I have found favor in your eyes, remain here, for I have learned by divination that HaShem has blessed me for your sake.’” Gen 30:27
  • Then the admiration turns to envy and false accusations begin: “[Yaakov] began to hear that Lavan’s sons were saying, ‘Yaakov has taken everything belonging to our father. He has become rich by taking our father’s property!’.’” (Gen. 31:1)
  • And then come the attempts to harm and to lay claim to the very strengths and possessions that were previously admired. “[Lavan spoke:] ‘I have it in my power to do you great harm…These daughters are my daughters, and these children are my children, and these cattle are my cattle, and all that you see is mine.’” (Gen. 31:29, 43)

That is the pshat. But the kabbalists note that Lavan’s name (which means, literally, white) connects him with the highest, purest root of the soul, called the Supernal Whiteness[3] (i.e., chesed).  This is a level of connection to Hashem above merit and debit where there is only love and an uninterrupted bestowal of good.  It is called the Higher Providence (mazal elyon) as distinct from the Lower Providence (mazal tachton)—the force of Divine justice that employs positive and negative reinforcements—raising and lowering as justice demands. If mazal tachton were the only influence we would rise and fall eternally.  In our first lifetime we’d fix one thing but damage another. In our next life we’d repair that but slip in something else.  And so it would go, up and down, round and round for eternity.

In contrast, the Higher Providence (mazal elyon) ensures that every moment of life, without exception, produces forward motion, increases consciousness, and advances the world toward redemption. Like the exit grates at a parking lot the Supernal Whiteness prevents backtracking. If something appears to be devolving it is certainly compensated by something else (perhaps less visible) that is bounding forward.

But what does this exalted consciousness have to do with the Lavan of our pshat—Yaakov’s devious father-in-law? And this is where Lavan moves from historic figure to cosmic trickster.[4]

The source of this Higher Providence is beyond our rational mind.  And consequently the good it bestows (constant and steady though it be) is sometimes obvious and sometimes very concealed.  Its job is intensely creative: To combine the raw materials of each moment—the situations, personalities, free choices, laws of nature, soul potentials, etc.—in a way that advances the consciousness of every single individual without exception. And then do the same for the next moment, without missing a beat. It cannot succeed without thinking out of the box, and that’s what makes the Supernal Whiteness a crafty rival for it is free to employ underhanded means, changing the terms of agreements (not just ten but) as many times as necessary to achieve its mandate of increasing consciousness at all costs.

And after all, really, what did Lavan do, but make sure that Leah became a matriarch, and that Yaakov’s flock included precisely those 600,000 sheep that were connected to the root souls of the Jewish people?[5],[6]

The implications are too deep to explore here now, but Pesach is sure to bring insights galore. Blessings for a kosher, liberating, enlightening, and transforming Pesach. May our encounters with the trickster expand our consciousness through joyful means this year.  And may our Pesach sedar bring us face to face with the Supernal Whiteness for the gates are open throughout the night. And let us be sensitized by that encounter to recognize its heartening presence in all the circumstances of our life and may we be changed by that awareness.

[1] From the Haggadot of Maharal and Ari on this passage.

[2] Maharal is the acronym for Judah Loew ben Bezalel, alt. Loewe, Löwe, or Levai, (c. 1520 – 17 September 1609) widely known to scholars of Judaism as the Maharal of Prague, or simply The MaHaRaL, the Hebrew acronym of “Moreinu ha-Rav Loew,” (“Our Teacher, Rabbi Loew”. Ari is the acronym for Isaac Luria Ashkenazi (1534 – July 25, 1572) and stands for “Adoneinu, rabbenu Yitzchak.” (Our Master Our Teacher Isaac).

[3] חיוורתי (chivarti), גלגלתא לבנה (galgalta levana), ליבנונית (livnunit), עתיקא קדישא   (atika kadisha)  לובן העליון (libun haelyon),כיבשי דרחמנא  (kivshei d’rachmana).

[4] Lavan, as trickster, assumes a function similar to coyote in Native American tales.

[5] R. Tsadok haKohen, Tsidkat HaTsadik, 91, 197.  Also see: R. Shlomo Elyashuv, Chelek haBiurim, Shaat HaAkudim 1:7.

[6] And for those aware of the kabbalistic connection between Lavan and Billam: R. Akiva taught that the messianic personage of Elihu, the fourth of Job’s comforters, and the one whose wisdom prevailed, was carrying the soul of Balaam… In the future, people will be very surprised to discover that a soul as corrupted as Balaam was able to be redeemed.  When the exiles are gathered and the dead are revived we will be shocked to behold the amazingly high and holy souls that have emerged from the dregs of impurity that incarnated as Balaam and Naval. People will marvel: How is it possible for purity [of this exceptional degree] to derive from material so profoundly impure. (Sefer haGilgulim 49, 65).

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