Seeing oneself as a victim is a choice
riting here recently about self-styled victimhood got me thinking about its ancient pedigree. Victimizer casting himself as victim is a mode of behavior we encounter in the Torah itself.
The first self-conceived victim we come across, in parshas Vayeira, is Avimelech, king of Gerar. After he faces Divine wrath for his abduction of Sarah, he complains self-righteously to G-d: “Will You kill even a righteous nation?! Didn’t [Avraham] tell me [Sarah] was his sister, and didn’t she, too, tell me he was her brother? I did this with an innocent heart and clean hands!”
To his mind, Avimelech is just a hapless victim of others’ conniving moves. Even after Hashem tells him his hands aren’t quite squeaky clean, Avimelech summons Avraham and laces into him indignantly (Bereishis 20:9): “What have you done to us and how have I sinned to you, that you’ve brought upon me and my kingdom a great sin; things that are not to be done you’ve done to me.”
The next verse (verse 10) continues, “And Avimelech said to Avraham, what did you see, that led you to do this?” In my sefer Matamei Mordechai, I note how strange it is that this pasuk, coming in the midst of Avimelech’s tirade, begins with “And Avimelech said to Avraham…” as if he has just now begun to speak. And what is it, anyway, that he’s adding with the words “what did you see, that led you to do this?” Hadn’t he already just said that in the previous pasuk?
I suggest there that the Torah expects us to visualize this encounter, as Avraham stands before a man in the grip of deep self-delusion, someone who inquires after every female visitor to his kingdom (see Makkos 9b) yet goes on and on about “great sins” and “things that are not to be done.” What is there to say to someone so convinced of his own innocence that, in his mind, it is he who is the aggrieved victim of Avraham’s machinations? Nothing, really.
And since there is nothing to say, Avraham indeed says nothing. He just stands there.
That scene — Avraham standing speechless opposite the Gerarite monarch — occupies the blank space between verses nine and ten. And as Avimelech’s words hang in the air, without any response, there flickers within him the faintest spark of self-knowledge. He realizes, perhaps for the first time ever, that his morally shabby thoughts and actions belie his righteous posturing. He has an inkling that he’s been exposed as a fraud, but isn’t sure exactly why and how.
We can now return to verse 10 to read it in an entirely new light. When Avimelech says to Avraham, “what did you see, that led you to do this?” it’s not a continuation of his rant in the preceding verse, but an abrupt reversal of course. Waking up from his lifelong self-delusion, Avimelech now understands that Avraham has grasped his essence far more accurately than he himself ever did. And he wants to know, “What, pray tell, did you see in me that caused you to deal with me as you did, presenting Sarah as your sister?”
Avraham now has an interlocutor with the minimal self-awareness to make a conversation worthwhile, and he responds, “Because I said, ‘There’s only no fear of G-d in this place, so they’ll kill me over my wife.” Both the Malbim and Rav Elchonon Wasserman give the identical explanation of Avraham’s words: He tells Avimelech that his smug moral superiority derives from presiding over a highly advanced, cultured society, with a veneer of civility that passes for moral seriousness.
Gerar has everything it takes to be a model human society, save one — fear of G-d. But that’s the one indispensable element for preventing a society from unraveling and descending to a jungle when passions flare and lusts ignite, whether over power, money, or a stranger’s wife. Absent a moral code whose authority emanates from beyond man, the human genius for self-deluded rationalization will always ensure that he gets his way.
Avimelech, at least, was somewhat sincere in playing the role of victim, albeit based on a fantasized self-perception. In parshas Vayeitzei, however, we learn about the ultimate virtuoso of victimhood, Lavan, for whom it serves an entirely different purpose.
Yaakov Avinu is the exemplar of emes, truth, and as his opposite number in the Torah, Lavan is more than just another liar and swindler, or even merely the biggest, most successful of the lot. Arami oved avi. Lavan lives to obliterate truth, to turn the world into a place in which one who lies never, ever need feel the slightest twinge of conscience or contrition.
To destroy the very concept of truth, Lavan must turn every ethical norm on its head. It won’t — can’t —suffice for Lavan to say, “I didn’t lie,” for to do so is to acknowledge the existence of a concept called “lying,” which means truth has a moral claim on him. The moralizing way of Avimelech is not for Lavan, because even to protest one’s “innocent heart and clean hands” is to reference quaint notions of shame and remorse whose existence he simply denies.
Consider the travesty of Yaakov working seven long years for Rachel, and despite spelling out his terms — literally, b’Rachel, bitcha, haktanah — being deceived with Leah instead. But Lavan doesn’t even acknowledge the charge of “Why have you tricked me?” He’s on the offensive, taking great offense indeed: “How dare you, Yaakov, you reprobate, violating our sacred norms, seeking to marry the younger child before the older one.” Yaakov is the aggressor, doing that which is simply not to be done, with the phrase “lo yei’aseh chein” — as in Avimelech’s “maasim asher lo yei’asu” and the “v’chein lo yei’aseh” of the Shevatim to describe the assault on Dinah — connoting behavior that’s beyond the pale.
More: Lavan tells a demonstrable lie about a supposed communal custom. He’s not a garden-variety liar looking to get away with his untruths, about whom the Gemara teaches (Yevamos 93b), “Milsa d’avida ligluyei lo mishaker — people don’t lie about things that will become known.”
Lavan is looking to dismantle truth itself, and to this end, he tells the most brazenly public lie possible, daring his listeners to contradict him. Either way, he wins and truth loses: If they respond only with stunned silence, he has made his listeners complicit in his assault on truth. And if they do protest, he will persist, making people doubt what they know to be true and reducing objective truth to nothing but one claim in a marketplace of competing alternative facts.
After two decades of Lavan’s swindles — one hundred in all — during which Yaakov perseveres with almost inconceivable integrity, taking not so much as an undeserved pin from his father-in-law, he flees with his family. Lavan pursues and overtakes Yaakov, and launches into an epic attack on Yaakov the deceiver, who treats his daughters like hostages. So evil is Yaakov that he denies Lavan a parting kiss to his children and grandchildren, when Lavan would have happily given him a rousing musical send-off.
Lavan’s modus operandi is at work once more: a grotesque distortion of reality that turns pursuer into pursued and vice versa, and the fabrication of lies that all present know to be so. It is a monumental eradication of all truth, all shame, all conscience, and yet, without doubt, as Lavan uttered these words, his intonation and body language conveyed bottomless sincerity and genuine hurt. That’s Lavan, the White One, pure as the driven snow.
After Yaakov strenuously objects, describing his impeccable honesty in granular detail, Lavan stares blankly ahead, as he mouths his version of reality: “The daughters are mine and the sons are mine and the sheep are mine and everything you see is mine.” It’s vacant inside that man’s soul.
Being a victim may not be a choice, but seeing oneself as a victim often is, and at times a nefarious one — as in the case of Lavan, who used that ploy to distort truth and harm others.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 767. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com