The first Mitzvah in Parshat Ki Tavo is the Mitzvah of Bikurim. The Torah says that when the Bikurim were brought to Yerushalayim to the Kohen, the person bringing them would make a declaration, which began, “Arami Oveid Avi Vayered Mitzraima,” “An Aramean sought to destroy my father and he went down to Egypt” (translation according to Onkelos and Rashi; also see Rashbam and Ibn Ezra). The Midrash identifies the Aramean as Lavan, who throughout his time with Yaakov Avinu tried to destroy him and his family. After Lavan, the Egyptians welcomed Yaakov, only to oppress his descendents. However, there is a problem here: why is it that the Torah here does not mention over two other difficult episodes in Yaakov’s life - Eisav’s attempt to kill him, and the sale of Yosef?
Rav Moshe Dov Soloveitchik, citing the Brisker Rav, said that there were fundamental differences between those trials that were stated and those that were not. The troubles of Lavan and Egypt had ended many years before, but the problem of Eisav remains to this day, as the Roman exile in which we currently find ourselves will not end until the coming of Mashiach. The sale of Yosef is not included due to the fact that Yaakov was the only one who suffered, as his sons and according to Rashi, even Yitzchak, knew the truth about Yosef’s disappearance (see Rashbam).
However, there is still another question that this does not explain: why is it that the Pasuk is phrased in such a way as to imply that there is a link between the episodes of Lavan and Egypt?
The Netziv suggests that we were originally meant to have been with Lavan for the duration of the 400 years of hardship promised to Avraham. However, Hashem saw that “the Aramean would destroy” Yaakov and his descendants. Therefore, Hashem sent the Jews to Egypt to complete the exile.
What about Lavan that made him so much worse than the Egyptians? After all, the Egyptians were an extremely immoral and corrupt nation, and they persecuted us to a level far beyond anything that Lavan did!
Rav A.L. Scheinbaum in his Sefer Peninim Al Hatorah suggests that since Lavan was a relative, he was much more dangerous. A person tends to trust people whom he knows well. Thus, when a close friend displays cruelty, it is much more devastating. In addition, Lavan tried to destroy the Jews by absorbing them into his own family. Thus, the danger of his evil was greater than the danger of Pharaoh.
An example of the danger of Lavan was the episode in which Lavan chased after Yaakov to try to kill him. After Hashem told Lavan in a dream not to harm Yaakov, he decided to make a pact instead. Under Lavan’s ideal treaty, Yaakov’s and Lavan’s families would become as one, intermarrying with each other. However, Yaakov realized the danger hidden in this and decided to propose instead a treaty wherein they merely agreed not to harm one another. Thus, Yaakov prevented the incorporation of his own family into Lavan’s and the inevitable subsequent spiritual disintegration of Klal Yisrael.
In modern times,itermarriage and assimilation have become quite prevalent in the Jewish community, and untold numbers of Jews have been lost due to these problems. It is specifically because American society is so tolerant and friendly to Jews that these issues have become so common. Conversely, in times when Jews were oppressed by their gentile neighbors, these problems, generally speaking, almost did not exist.
The idea that Lavan and Egypt are two different means to the same end also explains why Lavan and Egypt are the only difficulties mentioned. The entire point of mentioning these hardships is to talk about the physical and spiritual threats to the entire Jewish nation, not merely to describe Yaakov’s suffering.
However, there is a difficulty with this approach. The Pesukim describing the recitation by Bikurim summarize the story of Egypt and end with a Pasuk saying that Hashem brought us to Eretz Yisrael. The fact that no description of the story of Lavan is given implies that “Arami Oveid Avi” merely serves as a lead-in to the story of our enslavement in Egypt. However, according to what we just stated, we would have to say that it was just as important an event as the other.
R’ Moshe Feinstein offered a different explanation for the link between the two stories. Rashi (in the beginning of Parshat Vayishlach) states that Yaakov observed all the Mitzvot during his time with Lavan. It can be assumed that had he not been able to do so, he would not have willingly brought his family to Egypt, knowing that they would have a more difficult spiritual challenge there. Although Yosef was a ruler over Egypt and still kept the Mitzvot, Yaakov would not have wanted to expose his entire family to the spiritual dangers of Egypt just based on the experiences of one man.
Hashem wanted Yaakov to go to Egypt willingly, not to be forced to do so as Yosef was. Thus, it was vital for Yaakov to spend time in Lavan’s house, and become assured of his ability to withstand Lavan’s efforts to destroy him and his family. After he had survived there and had left intact, he would consent to go to Egypt. Thus, the episode of Lavan did in fact lead to Yaakov’s going to Egypt.