The enemy next to us

Are you shocked when family, teachers or friends hurt you? These are the people whom we believe we can trust. Yet, we all have been hurt by misdeeds and hurtful accusations from intimates. To paraphrase a Pogo comic strip, “we have met the enemy and the enemy is [sometimes close to] us.”

In Torah, we have a story about family cheating family. Jacob has served his father in law Lavan for two decades. He has made Lavan a wealthy man by tending the flocks so well. Jacob now seeks to leave with his wives, Leah and Rachel, and wants some compensation for his efforts. Lavan agrees that the compensation will be all of the spotted and speckled goats. Immediately after the agreement, Lavan removes all of the spotted and speckled goats from the flock. In turn, Jacob by use of some magical rods causes the healthiest of the flock to give birth to spotted and speckled goats.  Divine justice abounds. And then Jacob rushes his family back to Canaan, far from Lavan.

Place yourself in Jacob’s sandals. He has a difficult relationship with the father of his two wives. He was first tricked by Lavan. Remember Jacob fell in love with Rachel but Leah was delivered to the wedding ceremony instead of Rachel as was promised. Nevertheless, Jacob is determined and continues working for Laban to gain Rachel’s hand as well. Moreover, Jacob  demonstrates fealty to his new family, with great benefit to them. And yet he is cheated once again.

As a trust and estate attorney, I often hear stories of family members stealing assets, cheating one another in business, and spreading gossip about each other. The resulting pain is magnified when caused by someone of close relationship. The proposition extends to some non-family members as well. Bad behavior and its concomitant pain also come in the context of educational settings and spiritual relationships. The damage done by trusted teachers or clergy can be just as calamitous as that of family members. Within our tradition we have learned that the relationship of a teacher or rabbi is as dear to us as a relationship to parents.  These are the people we should most trust, and in whom we put our faith for well-being and loving kindness. And yet, we all seem to have stories like that of Lavan cheating his son-in-law, Jacob, whether our personal Lavan is family, teacher or rabbi.

The challenge is to be resilient and not merely survive the ordeal. How can we be resilient when trust is lost and faith is shattered? Jacob’s resolve is to move furtively, magically increasing the flock and then attempting exit without notice. His resilience is in his determination to be proactive on his own behalf and be willing to cut ties with the offending father in law. To end the pain of the abusive relationship engendered by Lavan, Jacob and his wives must now suffer another pain which is to disconnect from family. And yet, resilience, beyond survival, sometimes means we have to sever ties with parents or teachers or even rabbis who demonstrate a pattern of cheating or lying or abuse. The path of resilience can generate additional emotional and spiritual angst, as we seek to distance ourselves from the true sources of pain and suffering..  

I remain perplexed by stories of bad behavior by those who we are supposed to trust in whom we should have faith. At least this week's Torah reading has helped me to discern that whether our move is physical, emotional, or spiritual, we sometimes need to leave behind those who should have been our protectors and, instead, were our abusers. We might carry the pain with us but we can surpass and transcend when we find the strength to follow our own true paths.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame.