In this week’s parashah, we read about another very strange incident, wherein Yaakov works for Lavan for seven years to marry Rachel, and then is secretly given Leah. When he comes to Lavan to ask what that was all about, Lavan acts as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Rav S.R. Hirsch describes Lavan’s answer as follows:
You do not know the local customs. With us, if someone proposes to marry the younger sister, the understanding is that his proposal includes the older sister as well. Thus, everything is perfectly in order. After Leah’s marriage, “we will give you” Rachel as well. The plural “we” underscores the propriety of the act, as though it were in complete accordance with local custom—as concocted in Lavan’s mind. “Of course, you will then have to serve me for another seven years!”
Reading this alone, one might believe that Yaakov is at fault, adding “this is why we get lawyers to review our contracts and make sure the language is precise, leaving no loopholes.” Going back a few verses to Yaakov’s words, they are: “I will work for you for seven years for Rachel, your youngest daughter.” That seems at least precise enough to have blocked Lavan’s machinations. Alas.
What jumps out at us is the plural “we” that Rav Hirsch mentions. In the original, the word is the somewhat ambiguous נתנה, as opposed to אתנה, which would have been a more logical “I will give her [to you].” When Rashi explicitly writes that Lavan is speaking in the plural (“we will give her”), Rabbi Jacob Canizal feels the need to point out that this was not obvious; it could have meant “she will be given.” Onkelos agrees with Rashi (as do most commentators), while Rashbam and Ibn Ezra go with the other alternative.
Nechama Leibowitz points out that there is a very significant piece of evidence for Rashi’s explanation: in Rashi’s opinion, Rachel is the object of the sentence; in the other opinion, she is the subject. But later in the verse, the wording is גם-את-זאת, where the accusative את makes Rachel clearly the object of the sentence.
Why would Lavan use the plural? The Ramban suggests that this is to shift responsibility from himself onto a whole mass of people. After all, as with an employee who tells an arguing customer that “it is company policy,” it is much more difficult to complain to a faceless entity, or to demand justice from it. Nechama Leibowitz expands on this point:
This dichotomy provides an answer not only to those who would condemn him but, what is more dangerous, to himself and his conscience. In this way man splits himself in two, into his personal “I” who does good and is acceptable and pleasant in the eyes of his friends, and the “I” which is but a cog in the anonymous public machine, be it the state of which he is but a functionary and servant, the army of which he is but one of its nameless soldiers, the party of which he is but one of the rank and file, the enterprise which he does not direct but merely serves. What blame can therefore be attached to him? He personally did not commit this iniquitous offence, but, on the contrary, always does favours to people. As a tiny membrane however in that gigantic anonymous body he is forced to do what is imposed him [sic] and he is not responsible.
We might have thought that this dangerous behaviour of shifting responsibility onto an anonymous abstract body (the public, the state[,] the community, organization or movement) by which the individual satisfies both himself and the public at large, and which cannot be brought to justice, thus precluding any possibility of rectifying matters is confined to and characteristic of our days, owing to the growth of bureaucracy and large public organizations. Ramban, however, shows us the timelessness of the subterfuges resorted to by the evil in man.
Nechama Leibowitz is right to note that in our time, as governments grow much larger than any organization in the past, this shifting of responsibility is increasing exponentially. For one small example, there are currently 11 states where it is legal for a municipality to seize a home with no compensation if its owner is behind on property taxes, in some cases by as little as $10. There have been numerous documented cases where an owner makes an error and misses a bill, and is then not given an opportunity to pay what he owes; instead, the house is seized and either sold (for much more money than was owed) or simply “donated” to an organization owned by somebody well-connected.
If it were a specific person stealing the home, he could be subject to a very uncomfortable confrontation; but when the entity doing the stealing is faceless, there is no recourse, nowhere to go, nothing to do.
Along the same lines, we can discuss the story of Andrew Davies, who, in a stroke of luck, had pancreatic cancer discovered very early due to a kidney stone; it looked like the tumor had not yet metastasized, and likely could be removed without further complications. The British government-owned hospital, however, repeatedly cancelled his surgery due to the COVID pandemic over the course of six months, and by the time he was operated on, his entire pancreas and spleen were removed, as well as part of his liver. To whom can he go and complain? Paul Linden, another UK victim of socialized healthcare and pancreatic cancer, was at least contacted by the Belfast Trust. They “apologise[d] and said the position was unacceptable.” And this is exactly what we mean: each individual involved can simply say that this is unacceptable to him personally, but that he cannot do anything; and meanwhile, the individuals joined together can continue killing or stealing with impunity.
Our values are different. The gemara lays out a principle that there is no such thing as an agent in the performance of a sin. There is much discussion of complicated specific cases, but the general principle implies that following orders is no excuse. A policeman sent to kick in the door of a person he knows is innocent of any wrongdoing is responsible for his actions. A city attorney is responsible when he organizes the eviction of a homeowner when he knows it is not for good cause, and those in the chain of command who cancelled life-saving procedures to make life easier for themselves during COVID, who could have left some individuals’ procedures alone but chose not to, carry that responsibility. Competent agents are liable for their behavior, even when commanded from above.
Of course, when government gets large, many of those acting can face penalties varying from harsh fines to death for not following orders, and then the situation gets more difficult. We are already seeing the beginning of this in American healthcare, where government has come to play a very large role; doctors can face paralyzing liabilities when recommending treatment that is outside “the guidelines,” no matter what the potential benefit to the patient, or, indeed, what the patient wants; on the other hand, extremely risky or directly harmful treatments that fall within the guidelines leave the doctor immune to any liability. Nowadays in American healthcare, inaction often leads to liability, while direct harm shields one from it. Unfortunately, government creates moral hazards to which there is no good response by an individual.
Right after the morning blessings, we ask God to save us from עזי פנים ו…עזות פנים—from those with strong faces, and from having a strong face ourselves. What a “strong face” means, and whether it is always a bad thing, is up for much discussion, but this week, we will take one approach of Rav Hirsch:
Explicit mention is made here of dealings with עזי פנים, impudent men who deny us the condiseration and respect rightly due us, and of עזות פנים, the possibility that we ourselves might sin against others through insolent lack of consideration on our own part.
This applies even when we are following orders.
As a final thought, we want to note that all this discussion was derived from a single letter in the Torah.
 Breishit 29:27
 R’ Canizal’s commentary on Rashi was published in 1525.
 The Ramban cites “Rabbi Abraham”; we are assuming that he means Ibn Ezra.
 For examples, James Gillen of Tehachapi, CA, and Tawanda Hall of Southfield, MI
 Kiddushin 42b
 Of course, if he is not aware of the person’s innocence, this introduces complications; see Tosafot on Bava Kama 79a on the word נתנו