MAKING PEACE WITH AN INTIMATE ENEMY
Parashat Vayetse, B’reisheet/Genesis 28:10–32:3 Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, Ahavat Zion, Los Angeles
Genesis is irreplaceable, forming a sturdy foundation for all of Scripture and all of life. Its portraits of family dysfunctionality provide a master class in ineffective and effective conflict resolution. Because the conflicts in Genesis find their counterparts in our lives, we do well to learn its lessons. This week’s parasha focuses on Ya’akov’s conflicts with his uncle and father-in-law, Lavan (or Laban). Rabbi Lilly Kaufman deftly sketches this messy family constellation:
Poor Jacob is triply triangulated in Parashat Vayetzei! His boss, Laban, is not only his uncle, (his mother Rebecca’s older brother), but also Jacob’s father-in-law, Leah and Rachel’s father. Leah and Rachel are bitter rivals, Leah resenting Jacob’s love for Rachel, and Rachel wishing for children when God has blessed only Leah with fertility. Complicating this tangle of relationships is the fact that Jacob and Laban work together, and Laban is not a fair employer.
Judging Lavan to be unfair is too generous. He is actually a manipulative victimizing narcissist. He sells both his daughters into marriage to Ya’akov for the exorbitant price of seven years labor for each. And he foists one of those daughters on Ya’akov by pulling a switch in the dark, passing Leah to Ya’akov for a sexual union which will render them married. However, Ya’akov thought he was getting his beloved Rachel as a bride. Thus Lavan misused both daughters plus his son-in-law. He also cheats his son-in-law every chance he gets.
Amazingly, nowhere in Torah’s account of twenty years of his dealings does Lavan admit wrongdoing. Instead, he unfailingly deflects all blame and responsibility onto others in the family. Ya’akov and his wives would be quick to tell you Lavan is no prize.
Finally, after twenty years of abuse, including being cheated of fair wages by Lavan, Ya’akov has had enough. God tells him it’s time to pick up and leave Paddan-Aram to go home to Canaan. He departs with his wives, his children, his livestock, and whatever riches he had gathered. Meanwhile, Lavan is some distance away from home. It’s sheep-shearing season. Three days after Ya’akov heads west, Lavan hears he is gone and takes after him. It takes him a week to catch up with Ya’akov in the hill country of Gil’ad.
What happens next provides us an excellent model for conflict resolution. The first step of the model is the presentation of grievances, which each man does in turn. Lavan speaks first, complaining that Ya’akov took off in the middle of the night, with all he owned, and also his wives, daughters of Lavan, and his children, Lavan’s grandchildren. Lavan presents himself as betrayed and innocent. Next, it is Ya’akov’s turn. He recounts all the trouble he has endured, twenty years of it, point-by-point. He summarizes it all: These twenty years I’ve been in your house—I served you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flock, and you changed my wages ten times! If the God of my father, the God of Avraham, the one whom Yitz’chak fears, had not been on my side, by now you would certainly have already sent me away with nothing! God has seen how distressed I’ve been and how hard I’ve worked. (B’reisheet/Genesis 31:41–42) Lavan denies all guilt, again identifying himself as the wronged party who did nothing wrong,
This brings us to our second step. In such a conflict, it is important that neither side be shamed, even if they are offering a self-serving and even patently false version of the events. They should be allowed to protect their dignity and image. There is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by exacting a pound of flesh at such times. Lavan has to portray himself as guiltless and wronged. It is psychologically impossible for him to do otherwise. Do you know anyone like that? I think we all do!
Then comes the third step, the litigants must choose to look away from the present and the past toward a desirable future. Lavan suggests he and Ya’akov assemble a standing stone, to which Ya’akov adds more stones. Lavan says, “May this pile be a witness, and may the standing-stone be a witness, that I will not pass beyond this pile to you, and you will not pass beyond this pile and this standing-stone to me, to cause harm. May the God of Avraham and also the god of Nachor, the god of their father, judge between us.” But Ya‘akov swore by the One his father Yitz’chak feared. Ya‘akov offered a sacrifice on the mountain and invited his kinsmen to the meal. They ate the food and spent the whole night on the mountain. (B’reisheet/Genesis 31:52–54)
The stone marker and the meal eaten together seal a covenant between these men to work toward a better future together.
In her drash on this parasha, Rabbi Kaufman points to a further step in peace-making. We will all agree her observation matches our experience. This step recognizes how sometimes there are toxic people from whom we should separate ourselves. This is what Laban and Ya’akov do. They make their covenant, but they also agree to remain separated.
Rabbi Kaufman puts it this way: It may surprise some readers of the Bible that family separation is employed as the problem-solving strategy in the Jacob-Laban story. In fact, it is a common technique of dispute resolution in early chapters of the Bible. In Lekh Lekha (Gen. 13:1–13), Abram separated from Lot, his nephew and sole heir, after their dispute over grazing land, but their real clash was over conflicting values. At stake was the future of their family’s spiritual commitments: to worship God, as Abram wished, or to incline towards Sodom and Egypt, as Lot did. In Vayetzei, as in Lekh Lekha, the biblical hero is much better off putting distance between himself and a toxic family member who does not share his values.
Sometimes we must take such measures if we wish to truly preserve peace and our own sanity.
Shabbat Shalom Scripture references are CJB. Visit Rabbi Kaufman’s drash at https://www.jtsa.edu/torah/escaping-a-toxic-relationship/