The Good that Evil Men Do

Ohr Hachayim Genesis: Chayei Sarah

The Good that Evil Men Do

“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881)

As children, we like both our heroes and our villains pure. We prefer clear demarcations of good and evil. The heroes should be complete role models, with nary a fault. The villains should be bad, through and through. Even the villain’s good deeds must have a conniving rationale. Reality however, is more complex.

The Bible and our lives are populated with distasteful personalities. The Rabbinic commentators over the centuries did not hold back in their criticism of these horrid people. They often received the moniker “Evil One” appended to their names.

One of the more colorful villains of the Bible is Laban the Aramite. Over time, he proved to be a niggardly, scheming, lying, greedy, egocentric, power-hungry, idol-worshipping and ungrateful, slave-driving employer and father-in-law to our Patriarch Jacob. (That makes him our great, great, great, grandfather many many times over).

The Ohr Hachayim though, squeezes a good act out of this otherwise Evil Laban. When we first meet Laban, he is introduced by the Bible:

“And Rebecca had a brother, and his name was Laban.” Genesis 24:29

The Ohr Hachayim is perplexed by this introduction, for apparently there is a well known dictum in the Midrash, that for the righteous, their “name” comes before them. Meaning, they are introduced as: “his name was Boaz,” where the word “name” precedes the actual personality, while the sinners are introduced as “Naval was his name,” with the word “name” coming after the villain.

So how is it that this most evil of men, the one that we denounce on Passover night for wanting to destroy all of Israel (as opposed to Pharaoh, that only wanted to kill the men) is introduced with the introduction of the righteous?

The Ohr Hachayim reads the scene of Laban’s first appearance. A strange man (Abraham’s servant) approaches Laban’s young sister, Rebecca, gives her gifts and asks personal questions. Laban’s first instinct is to protect his sister and confront this strange man. Just for this simple thought to defend his sister’s honor, God introduces this otherwise highly villainous ancestor of ours, as if he were righteous.

May we always find good in the evil around us.

Shabbat Shalom,



To the various inept and corrupt politicians in the world (I’m not sure which is worse). Though we often (rightfully) disparage them, we are thankful for their moments of goodness.

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