One of the major uses I have made of studying the Torah (Bible) on a regular basis is to learn midot tovot (good character traits) from the leading figures whom we learn about in the text. This past week’s Torah reading, Parashat Va’yetzei, is no exception.
Our forefather Ya’acov, Jacob, has travelled to Charan to his mother Rivka’s family home. The better part of the parasha is involved in the interaction between Jacob and his uncle Laban. To say his uncle is an underhanded character would be an understatement.
He agrees to let Jacob wed his younger daughter Rachel. However, instead of providing his daughter with a dowry, he demands Jacob work for him (salary-free) for seven years! On the wedding night, he substitutes his older daughter Leah for Rachel. The reason—“in our country, we do not marry off the younger daughter before the older one.” Something which Laban had somehow “forgot” to mention at the outset.
A dowry for Leah perhaps? Ha! Another seven years of labor, sans wages. And so on, and so on--one dirty trick after another. Even during years 15-20, when Jacob is working for Laban in order to build a nest egg, it’s the same old story—“and you changed my wages ten times” (Genesis 31:41).
But after Jacob has left Laban’s house, on his way back to his father Yitzchak’s home, Laban chases after him, accusing him of a myriad of crimes, including thievery (a story for another time). Would Jacob have every right to “lose it” at this point, to lash into his father-in-law? Anyone, having read how events unfolded throughout the parasha, would undoubtedly respond in the affirmative. But watch how our forefather handled it:
“Va’yichar L’Ya’acov, Va’yarev B’Lavan, Va’ya’an Ya’acov, Va’yomer l’Lavan” (31:36). “And Jacob was enraged, and strove with Laban, and Jacob retorted (to Laban), and he said to Laban.” Remember the old expression “count to three”? Well, Jacob counted to four.
And Jacob was enraged—smoke was coming out of his ears; but he says nothing. And strove with Laban—he’s ready to “get it on;” but he says nothing. And Jacob retorted—he’s almost calm, but not quite. And he said to Laban—finally, having put all his anger aside. (Va’yomer is sourced from amirah, which Rashi tells us in a number of places equates to soft-spoken; by comparison, dibur/Va’yedaber is firm/forceful speech).
What a powerful lesson! However off-base your opponent, however despicable, whatever wrongs they have performed against you, curb your anger before opening your mouth. Rambam/Maimonedes tells us anger (ka’as) is one of the worst character traits. Let us all learn to curb our anger.