Towards the end of Parashat Vayetze, we read of the tense exchange that took place between Lavan and Yaakov after Yaakov clandestinely fled from Lavan’s town in the middle of the night. Lavan pursued Yaakov, caught up to him, and searched through his belongings for his terafim (idols, or oracles) which, unbeknownst to Yaakov, had been stolen by Rachel. After Lavan failed to find any of his possessions among Yaakov’s belongings, Yaakov became angry at Lavan (“Va-yichar Yaakov va-yarav be-Lavan” – 31:36) and berated him for pursuing him and searching through his things. Yaakov noted his loyal, devoted and honest service as he shepherded Lavan’s flocks for twenty years, despite Lavan’s devious attempts to cheat him. Lavan defended his actions by claiming that everything Yaakov owned was, in truth, his, as Yaakov had married his daughters and earned wealth through his work with Lavan’s herds. In the end, Lavan proposed a truce, whereupon Yaakov hosted a feast to celebrate the pact struck with his father-in-law.
The Ramban (31:46) makes an interesting observation, noting that Yaakov invited to his feast Lavan’s family members, but did not invite Lavan himself. This omission was intentional, the Ramban writes, as an expression of respect to Lavan. He treated Lavan as though all his possessions belonged as well to Lavan, such that there was no need to extend an invitation to his feast. Yaakov therefore invited Lavan’s men, but not Lavan himself, as though Lavan were cohosting the event, rather than participating as a guest.
Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm, in Chokhma U-mussar (p. 109), finds it significant that Yaakov was now treating his father-in-law with respect just moments after angrily berating him. Not only did Yaakov make a point of respecting Lavan, he also implicitly acknowledged an element of truth in Lavan’s response to his condemnation: “The girls are my daughters, the boys are my sons, the sheep is my sheep, and everything you see is mine” (31:43). While there is certainly no indication that Yaakov rescinded his claim that he rightfully owned everything he had, it does appear – at least according to the Ramban – that he granted Lavan the respect he deserved by virtue of his having been the source of Yaakov’s success in building a large family and amassing great wealth. And thus despite Yaakov’s obvious frustration with Lavan, he nevertheless treated him with respect and acknowledged the truth in Lavan’s counterargument.
The Alter concludes on this basis that Yaakov’s “anger” was not a spontaneous emotional outburst, but rather a calculated response to Lavan’s actions. Yaakov did not “erupt” in a fit of rage, but rather reached the rational decision that the situation demanded harsh criticism. Only this, the Alter claims, could explain how Yaakov could so quickly “shift gears” and speak to Lavan with respect and congeniality as soon as Lavan proposed a peaceful truce. If Yaakov had spoken with raw, unrestrained emotion, freely releasing pent-up resentment and umbrage, it is hardly likely that he would be capable of changing his demeanor so suddenly. Necessarily, then, Yaakov remained fully in control of his emotions all throughout. Despite having been relentlessly victimized by Lavan’s duplicity for twenty years, Yaakov retained his composure and acted and spoke with reason. Even his expressions of anger were carefully crafted as the most effective means of handling the situation, and were not a spontaneous outburst of raw emotion.