“And Yaakov stole the heart of Lavan the Aramenian, by not telling him that he was going to flee” (B’reishis 31:20). Let’s read that again. Yaakov stole Lavan’s heart by not telling him ahead of time that he was going to run away. Huh? How could Yaakov have warned Lavan that he was going to run away? Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose? Maybe Lavan could have expected Yaakov to tell him that he was leaving, so it’s fair to say that by running away Yaakov “stole Lavan’s heart.” But the fact that he didn’t tell him he would run away shouldn’t be the issue, only that he ran away. Why does the Torah attribute the theft of Lavan’s heart to Yaakov not telling him he would flee rather than to the very fact that he fled, or to not telling him that he was leaving? Was Yaakov expected to give Lavan advance notice that he was going to run away, to the extent that not warning him that he was about to leave without telling him (whatever that means) was considered “stealing his heart”?
To be fair, I may have created a straw man, as I translated the word “Beis-Reish-Ches” as “running away,” whereas the Targum and Rav Saadya Gaon translate it as “going.” True, not telling Lavan he was leaving is the same as running away, but by translating “Borach” as “going” rather than “fleeing,” the issue of expecting Yaakov to warn Lavan that he was fleeing isn’t there. Nevertheless, the word the Torah usually uses for “going” somewhere (rather than “fleeing”) is “Hey-Lamed-Chof,” and if the Torah meant to say that Yaakov stole Lavan’s heart by not telling him he was leaving, this is the word we would have expected to be used. [Stay tuned for a possible answer as to why the Torah uses “Beis-Reish-Ches” instead of “Hey-Lamed-Chof” if the intent was not “fleeing.”] Most commentators do understand the word to mean “fleeing,” and various explanations have been suggested.
Radak and S’fornu put a comma between the words “by not telling him” and the words “that he was running away.” “Yaakov stole Lavan’s heart by not telling him” that he was getting ready to leave (which had just been described in verses 17 and 18). Why didn’t he tell him? “Because he was running away,” so couldn’t tip his hand. S’fornu explains it a bit differently, with the “not telling him” referring to Yaakov acting as if he was unaware that Lavan was now unhappy with him, so that Lavan wouldn’t suspect that Yaakov might leave; Yaakov didn’t let Lavan know that he knew “Lavan’s face had changed” (31:2) “because he was planning to run away,” and didn’t want Lavan to prevent him from doing so. The question we are left with is why we need to be told the reason Yaakov didn’t tell him. Isn’t it obvious that Yaakov didn’t give any hints that he was planning to run away because, well, he planned on running away?
Alshich has a similar approach (see also Netziv), albeit without putting a comma between the two expressions. “Yaakov stole Lavan’s heart” by doing things that made him think he wanted to stay, which in turn caused “Lavan’s heart [read: intuition] not to tell him (Lavan) that [Yaakov] was thinking of running away.” [Ohr HaChayim adds that by asking permission the first time (30:25), Yaakov made it seem as if he wouldn’t leave without asking first, leading Lavan to believe that Yaakov wasn’t considering running away.] The verse isn’t saying that Yaakov didn’t tell Lavan he was going to run away, it was “Lavan’s heart” that didn’t inform Lavan that he better take precautions because Yaakov might try to flee. However, the plain meaning of the verse is that it was Yaakov who didn’t tell Lavan, not Lavan’s heart.
Malbim focuses on Yaakov’s preparation to leave, which was purposely done in a way that wouldn’t raise any suspicion that he was leaving without permission, thereby preventing anyone from telling Lavan that Yaakov was running away. “Yaakov stole Lavan’s heart” by leaving in a way that led to “no one informing [Lavan] that [Yaakov] was running away.” However, Lavan was in fact told that Yaakov had fled (31:22), on the very first day that word could have possibly reached him (on the third day, since there was a three day separation between where Yaakov was and where Lavan was (see 30:36). Since it doesn’t seem that Yaakov’s plan on leaving in a way that wouldn’t cause anyone to go tell Lavan was successful, why would the Torah tell us that Yaakov “stole Lavan’s heart” rather than “tried to steal his heart”?
Chasam Sofer switches the “fleeing” from Yaakov running away from Lavan to Yaakov running away from Eisav, with Yaakov having “stolen Lavan’s heart” by not telling him the full story of why he left Canaan. Just as Yisro made Moshe swear that he wouldn’t return to Egypt with his (Yisro’s) daughter and grandchildren without first getting his permission (see Rashi on Sh’mos 2:21) because Moshe’s life was in danger if he returned to Egypt (see Sh’mos 2:15), had Lavan known the whole story he would have made Yaakov swear that he wouldn’t return to Canaan without permission because his life was in danger there (as Eisav wanted to kill him). By not telling Lavan why he fled, that he was running for his life, and not just leaving because of a spat with his brother, Yaakov “stole Lavan’s heart.” Here too, though, the verse is being taken out of its plain meaning, that it is Yaakov’s fleeing from Lavan being referred to. Chasam Sofer’s son, K’sav Sofer, makes the same switch, but takes it in the opposite direction. Yaakov had told Lavan that he fled from his brother, and that he did so because his life was in danger, in order to lay the groundwork to be able to flee from Charan when it became necessary. Knowing that Yaakov had serious troubles back home, Lavan was confident that he wasn’t going to go back, and therefore took no precautions to prevent it from happening. Had Yaakov waited to tell Lavan why he left Canaan and came to Charan — that it was not just to find a wife — after he was there for a while, Lavan would have realized that he was only being told this now to try to mislead him into thinking that he (Yaakov) wouldn’t go back so that he (Lavan) would let his guard down; by telling him this right away, Lavan never suspected that Yaakov told him this in order to eventually make it easier to escape. “Yaakov stole Lavan’s heart by telling him, when there seemed to be no need to, that he had to escape” from Canaan. Again, though, this is not a straightforward reading of the verse.
S’fornu (31:21) tells us that Beis-Reish-Ches refers to running away without being chased, while Nun-Samech-Hey refers to running away while being chased. In Sefer HaShoroshim (Beis-Reish-Ches), Radak quotes his father as explaining the word to sometimes mean “leaving quickly,” even without running away from anything or anyone. (He specifically applies this to Yonah “running away” to Tarshish to get there quickly, as opposed to running away from G-d.) If we apply this definition here, there would be no issue with saying “Yaakov stole Lavan’s heart by not telling him that he would leave so quickly.” Nevertheless, if this is what the Targum and Rav Saadya Gaon meant, they would have added the word “quickly” to their translation. However, if the word can (also) refer to leaving without permission, and not just leaving without the other person knowing, their translation works well.
“And Yaakov stole Lavan’s heart by not telling him that he was leaving — and that he would leave even if he wasn’t given permission to do so.” Whether Yaakov made the right decision by not telling Lavan is not the discussion here. [It’s quite likely that Lavan would have done whatever he could to prevent Yaakov from leaving, leaving Yaakov no choice but to leave without telling him first; I therefore see no need to speculate as to what could have been gained by Yaakov telling Lavan he was leaving.] What is under discussion is what the cause of Lavan’s heart being “stolen” was. The verse could very well be telling us that Lavan was heartbroken that Yaakov didn’t tell him he was leaving whether or not Lavan agreed. Since the term here does not (and cannot) refer to leaving without Lavan’s knowledge (as how could Yaakov be expected to tell Lavan he was going to leave without his knowledge), the Targum and Rav Saadya Gaon translate it simply as “going.” But because it refers to “going without permission,” the word the Torah uses is Beis-Reish-Ches.