When Jacob decides to leave Laban and return to his ancestral land, he tells Leah and Rachel that Laban “has cheated me, changing my wages time and again.” But is this accusation a just one, borne out by the facts of the case as provided in the text?
Jacob’s main complaint is presumably Laban’s substitution of Leah for Rachel, but while his intent was obviously deceptive, Laban could certainly claim (along with many modern politicians) that his response to Jacob’s request was “legally accurate.” “Better that I give her to you than that I should give her to an outsider. Stay with me,” is, in the words of Etz Hayim, “a statement of consummate ambiguity naively accepted by Jacob as a binding commitment,” and Laban did, indeed, eventually allow Jacob to marry Rachel. Perhaps Jacob, whose previous experience in deception consisted of outright lies like “I am Esau, your firstborn,” can be forgiven for missing the subtlety in his uncle’s more sophisticated technique. However, Laban does not seem so different from the younger man who hastened out to meet Abraham’s servant only upon seeing evidence of his kinsman’s great wealth; it is hard to imagine that Rebecca told her favorite son nothing of her brother’s personality during those cozy years in the tents.
The only other time that wages are discussed is in the story told in our aliyah, that of the division of the flocks according to their markings, and in that incident there is more than enough discredit to go around. Laban and Jacob first attempt to outdo each other in a ritual of politeness worthy of Chip and Dale. Then Laban eagerly accepts Jacob’s specification of “wages,” believing that he is pulling another fast one on his gullible son-in-law. Perhaps this is the point at which the relationship could have been salvaged, if Laban had, perhaps out of his feeling for his daughters, overcome his own insatiable greed and protested that the division was not fair. If Jacob expected anything like this to happen after fourteen years he was certainly optimistic, if nothing else. If not, he had no reason to complain, especially since he had his own plan to turn the tables on his wily uncle.
Perhaps, however, even if he did want Laban to do the right thing, Jacob was equally at fault for setting the test and then feeling betrayed when the older man failed it. Perhaps the correct thing to do would have been to end the power games and unequivocally ask for the wages he felt he was entitled to, demanding that his father-in-law show equal candor. Unfortunately, this may have been as foreign to Jacob’s personality as honesty was to Laban’s, in which case there was no other way their relationship could have played out.