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Parshat Vayetzei: Child Abuse

They only hit until you cry
After that you don’t ask why
You just don’t argue anymore
You just don’t argue anymore
-Suzanne Vega

This week’s parsha is about Yaakov fleeing from his brother Esav and spending twenty long years with his uncle, Laban. During those years he marries Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel and has many children. He has also become quite wealthy. 

But achieving these milestones in his life was not easy for Yaakov. His biggest challenge was dealing with his father-in-law, Laban, a most unscrupulous individual. Laban’s treatment of his children relates to a question on one of the 10 Commandments of whether a child must still show honour and respect even if the parent has been abusive. Indeed this could be history’s first recorded example of child abuse. 

When Laban surreptitiously replaced Rachel with her sister, Leah on the wedding night, thus deceiving Yaakov of marrying his true beloved, one could only imagine the conversations that went on between Laban and his daughters before this terrible act of treachery. Here was Rachel, clearly in love and ready to marry her man after he has labored and toiled a full seven years for her. But then along comes her father to impose upon his daughters this awful scheme of replacing one sister for the other on the very night of the wedding. Both girls must have felt such a sense of shock, dismay and confusion all at once. Rachel, for not being with her beloved after such a long wait and Leah for being put in this extremely uncomfortable position of having relations with a man who doesn’t love nor wishes to marry her, but instead her sister. 

It begs the question as to why the sisters went along with it. Why didn’t Rachel and Leah protest and disobey? How could they have been partners in such a horrible deceit? 

I surmise that a number of factors were at play that made them feel that they had no choice: 

  • Cultural norms, as Laban himself says when defending his actions to Yaakov the next day, “Such is not done in our community, to marry off the younger before the older.” 
  • Their youth and the lack of confidence that comes with young age. 
  • The fear that they had for their father as the large, looming authority figure he must have been in their lives. 

Given all these, they most likely could not summon the courage to defy his demands and even if they did, their pleas would have most likely fallen on deaf ears. 

And herein lies the very definition and dynamics of child abuse.

The indisputable role of a parent is to nurture, care for, give and provide for the good and welfare of their child. It is pretty much a one-way street where Mom and Dad put in endless amounts of time, effort and energy into creating a healthy, happy child who will grow to be an independent adult that will be a contributing member of society. 

When a parent contravenes this norm, turning it on its head, and instead utilizes their children for their own personal gain – the result is child abuse. To use one’s children for personal satisfaction, whether financial – as in the case of Laban who used his daughters to get 14 years of free labour out of Yaakov and paid little attention to the painful repercussions to his own daughters’ psyche, feelings, emotions and resulting scars – or whether it something far worse, sexual, is nothing short of evil. 

Children intuitively and understandably feel and believe that their parents are only looking out for their interests and that Mom or Dad would do nothing to harm them. But when a parent doesn’t abide by this seemingly natural law, but acts in a completely selfish manner, then there is no greater pain and hurt that is forever etched into the minds and hearts of those children who are the victims of this abuse. 

The same can be said when any authority figure such as a clergy member, teacher, coach, powerful government official or company boss betrays the trust innate to their position and uses their standing to satisfy personal cravings and desires. It then becomes even worse when this person attempts to cover up their horrible deeds.

As for Rachel and Leah, after 20 years, as time marches on and they are able to grow, mature and see their predicament for what it truly was and view it through the lenses of adult women, their understanding of their father had radically changed. There was no more fear, there was no more uncertainly and there was certainly no more respect. They saw their father for what he was – a lowlife who selfishly manipulated their lives for his personal gain. 

It was no surprise then that when Yaakov informed them of his desire to flee his father-in-law, they wholeheartedly agreed and proclaimed, “Are we not considered by him like complete strangers? He has sold us and consumed our money?” And off they went, never to see their father again. 

As it became evidently clear so long ago, a parent who raises his or her children with only the child’s good and welfare in mind will have a lasting relationship with them for eternity. But those who raise their children for their selfish desires and narcissistic needs will eventually lose them forever – never to see them again as they flee the abusive parent, never looking back in the rear-view mirror. 

I’ve no regrets
I will not ask for your forgiveness…
Run away with me and it’ll all make sense
-Lord Huron

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