This week’s Torah reading begins with Jacob fleeing his furious brother and deceived father. He heads for Haran, dwelling place of his uncle Lavan. Lavan’s first encounter with this family of Hebrews came when he met Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who came bearing gold to persuade Lavan to let his sister, Rebecca, marry Isaac. The penniless Jacob arrives - already having met his wife to be, Rachel.
[And Lavan] ran towards Jacob and embraced him and kissed him and brought him into his house.
The Rabbis of Bereishit Rabba take the opportunity to paint Lavan as a deceiving moneygrabber. Lavan ran towards Jacob thinking he had come bearing gold. He embraced him, taking the opportunity to check if there was any gold in Jacob’s pockets. He kissed him, taking the opportunity to check if there was any gold secreted in his mouth.
It’s a terrific playful interjection, sensitive and sceptical to Lavan’s eagerness and prefiguring Martin Buber by around 1500 years. Lavan’s relationship with his nephew is precisely what Buber had in mind in his analysis of the ‘I-It’ relationship. The relationship based on the single question - what’s in it for me? Relationships founded on self-service are never going to be profound. At their best they are reciprocal. Reciprocity isn’t evil, but it’s a long way from love. The ‘I-Thou’ relationship, where one seeks to serve another without regard for self-interest is of an entirely different, deeper, sort.
So this is the challenge, when we encounter others do we interact on the basis of what is in it for us, or without regard to our own self interest? Can we crank up the number of interactions we have with others that are based on wilful acts of generosity of deed? How much sweeter, and more surprising, could we make this world if we led with a desire to do things for others, freed of the need to be assured of precise predictable payback. It’s a way of encountering others that will work for nieces, other family members, work colleagues, friends and strangers alike. I commend it.