by R. Eliezer Simcha Weisz
The Story of Lavan’s Sons – A Warning Against Fake News from Biased Sources
The Torah in Parshas Vayetzei records how “Lavan’s sons said, ‘Yaacov has taken all that is our father’s, and of that which is our father’s, he has made all this wealth’” Bereshis (31:1)
וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת-דִּבְרֵי בְנֵי-לָבָן לֵאמֹר, לָקַח יַעֲקֹב אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִינוּ; וּמֵאֲשֶׁר לְאָבִינוּ, עָשָׂה אֵת כָּל-הַכָּבוֹד הַזֶּה
Lavan’s sons were among the earliest purveyors of fake news. Indeed “fake news,” a term ubiquitous in our vocabulary, finds its roots in the deceptive tactics employed by Laban’s sons to incite their father against Jacob. This story warns us to be wary of misinformation from biased sources with vested interests and preconceived notions. Just as Lavan’s sons incited their father against Yaakov based on lies, we must critically analyze claims we hear before accepting them.
Lavan – An Example of the Influence of Fake News
The Torah continues by telling us: “And Yaacov saw Laban’s countenance, that he was not disposed toward him as [he had been] yesterday and the day before” (Bereshis 31:2)
וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב אֶת-פְּנֵי לָבָן, וְהִנֵּה אֵינֶנּוּ עִמּוֹ כִּתְמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם
The commentator Sforno explains that Lavan was easily deceived by his sons’ misinformation, fully believing the false allegations against Yaakov. Lavan serves as an example of human susceptibility to “fake news”, since he internalized the lies and changed his attitude toward Yaakov because of them.
Caution Against Visual Manipulation and Psychological Harm
With modern technology, we can no longer rely on photos or videos, since advanced software allows editing and altering images and films to present a fake reality. Furthermore, exposure to violent or disturbing content, even if real, can adversely affect mental health. Psychological research has shown that prolonged watching of violent content increases reactions of anxiety, depression and emotional detachment. Therefore, as media consumers, we must exercise good judgement and critically analyze the content we consume, while being aware of its potential impact.
Propaganda and Misinformation as Modern Warfare Tools
Wars today are waged not only physically but also mentally, through propaganda and the spread of fake news in the media. The manipulative use of media contributes to incitement and the proliferation of dangerous ideologies such as antisemitism and hatred of Israel. We must be aware that the media can shape misconceptions among the public and influence public opinion.
The Sages’ Warning of the Depressing Effects of Media
Ulla (as well as Rabbah and Rabbi Yochanan) says: “Let the Messiah come, but I wish not to see him,” Sanhedrin 98b –( אמר עולא יייתי ולא אחימיני) – referring to the suffering that would precede the Messianic era. Perhaps this statement refers especially to our times, when we are exposed to enormous amounts of often false and horrifying media that can be viewed instantly from anywhere in the world. The Sages understood the danger in overexposure to depressing and harmful content.
Focusing on Constructive Actions and Strengthening Faith
We must not fall into the trap of consuming excessive and harmful media. We should strengthen our faith that God will redeem us as in the past, if we act properly through observing Mitzvot, studying Torah, praying, and performing acts of kindness. In times of trial, we must focus on constructive and uplifting actions for the community and society.