Visiting Uncle Laban's Family

November 16th: Vayetze
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Part of what makes the Torah ring so true is its portrayal of our ancestors as real and imperfect people—with real and imperfect families. In last week’s par’shah, Rebecca and Jacob conspire to fool Isaac into blessing the wrong son. In this week’s par’shah, Jacob meets his Syrian family: Uncle Laban and Cousins Rachel and Leah. Love soon develops between Jacob and Rachel, but family dynamics get very complicated when Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel in what must have been a rather concealing bridal costume. This is just the beginning, and the complications of sisters/wives competing for the husband’s affection, of working for a dishonest father-in-law, and of the subsequent rivalries and competitions among the children make life challenging and have long-lasting consequences. Imagine sitting around the “Thanksgiving table” up in Padan Aram with Laban, Jacob, Leah, Rachel et al!

 Coming right between the difficulties of family life in in Beersheba and the difficulties of family life in Padan Aram is Jacob’s incredible encounter with God—God Who stands at the top of the Ladder between Heaven and Earth. One can imagine Jacob feeling very pleased with himself after the meeting because God blesses him with a holy destiny: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28.13-15)

 After such a meeting, Jacob must have great confidence as he strides into Padan Aram, but this confidence is soon mangled by Uncle Laban’s deceptive behavior. Yes, God is with Jacob, but, in the emotional cauldron of a dishonest father-in-law, two competing wives, a few concubines, and children who may be learning the bad along with the good of what they see, the going is not easy. Again, imagine what it would have been like to sit at their table for “Thanksgiving”—or whatever holiday brought the whole family together. Think of all the agendas and possibilities.

 We do not know how the Patriarchs and Matriarchs navigated their family gatherings, but we know that ours are fast approaching. As we think about our own Thanksgiving gatherings—and about the conceivably challenging family dynamics, what would some guiding principles be?

 Dr. Christena Cleveland, a Christian teacher who focuses on justice and peacemaking, offers these insights in her newsletter, in an article entitled, Eight Tips for Difficult Conversations Over the Holiday Table:

First, be encouraged that you’re probably the best person to talk to your family about politics. Social psychology research on extended contact theory reveals that we can play a critical role in opening our family members’ minds about different groups. Research shows that our prejudice toward groups significantly decreases when we learn that someone we know has a positive relationship with someone in the other group.

Second, dig deep into humility. Over the course of our lives, we’ve become ignorant, internalized oppressive ideology, hurt marginalized people, and resisted self-examination. Remember your journey as you seek to jump-start other people’s journeys.

Third, plan a Sabbath during your time with family. While you’re with family, plan to take time off for restoration. Take a 20 minute walk to breathe deeply, visit a coffee shop or take a night out with friends.

Fourth, do some spiritual strength training. We are not invincible; we cannot continually enter into difficult conversations unless we are clothed in an armor of love. Amp up your spiritual strength training.

Fifth, prepare to tell the story of your justice journey. Rather than planning to launch shaming justice grenades on your family members, spend time preparing to strategically and vulnerably share your story with them.

Sixth, remember that this isn’t the only conversation/interaction you’re going to have. As Archbishop Oscar Romero believed, “We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.”

Seventh, be kind to yourself. The pain, fear, and anxiety you are experiencing right now are human and justified. Give yourself permission to be imperfect and to do imperfect justice work.

 Eighth, do some more spiritual strength training.


Part of our Jewish legacy is that we have all stood under that Ladder to Heaven and heard God tell us that we have a special destiny—that we have in our souls a special truth. So, when we meet and eat and speak with the confidence of that Divine Encounter, let us remember that others’ viewpoints also have their origins in God.