Jacob and Laban: How Not to Do Healthcare

This week I wrote the “Torah from T’ruah”–a reflection on the weekly Torah portion for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. T’ruah is an organization that is doing important social justice work, and I am proud to be counted among their chaverim (partners)

Click here to read the post on their website.

A few months ago I received a letter from my health insurance company telling me that they were cancelling my insurance plan, and that as of December 31 I would have to find new coverage. I was not alone in this scenario, as this particular company cancelled plans in several counties in my state. The reason, as the letter stated, was “instability in the market.”

As a rabbi of a smaller congregation, I need to find my insurance either through the health exchange or the individual market. I found my current plan on the individual market last year, as it seemed like the best fit for my family. But with the current administration withholding the subsidies that offset the costs for low-income beneficiaries, and with the general threats directed at the Affordable Care Act, the market for insurance has become more volatile. Even now, as I shop for plans in the open enrollment period, I see that premiums have risen significantly.

The Torah portion this week, Vayetze, is full of economic trickery. Jacob, fresh from dressing up like his older brother in order to steal the blessing from his visually impaired father, sets off to the family homeland of Haran in order to find his family and a wife. His kinsman Laban brings him in and promises his daughter Rachel in exchange for seven year’s work. When Laban tricks him into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah, Jacob insists he will work another seven years. When that time is up, he is allowed to marry Rachel.

Jacob gets revenge of a sort when he makes a deal for his “wages”—striking a bargain for sheep and goats of a particular coloring. After Laban tries to hide these, Jacob breeds new ones using the healthiest animals, thus getting rich off of Laban. The story is also full of stolen idols, trading sex for mandrakes, and middle-of-the-night escapes.

One the one hand, this story reads like farce—there are so many double-dealings, falsehoods, and tricks that it becomes comical. But the dark side of the story is this perpetual vying to get the upper hand, to exploit the labor of the other, to be dishonest in business dealings. And while Jacob and Laban in the end form a truce of sorts, there is a sense that trust has been broken permanently. They build a pillar, share a sacrificial meal, and promise to never have anything to do with the other again.

I feel like I am stuck in Jacob and Laban’s universe during this period as I look over the insurance market. Is this really the best way to provide health care? Buying into for-profit companies who in turn pay for one’s medical expenses? Companies which would prefer to maximize profit by minimizing risk, and when the “instability” gets too much they just pull out of the market leaving “customers” like me having to go elsewhere? It feels like I have to contend with those who, like Jacob and Laban, are acting only out of their own self-interest, without concern for the real needs of the other.

There is, however, a hint of another way in this portion. In the beginning of Jacob’s journey to Haran, he stops to sleep for the night and has his famous vision of a ladder with angels moving up and down, and God promising to protect him. When he awakes he is amazed at his vision, and as he sets off to continue his journey he says, “If God remains with me and protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safely to my father’s house—Adonai shall be my God.” (Genesis 28:20-21)

On the one hand it sounds presumptuous—Jacob will only stand by God if he gets what he is asking for. On the other, Jacob is only asking for simple things: food, clothing, safety, and security. Indeed, isn’t this what we all want and deserve? And in our day, access to affordable health care is a way we manifest “safety” and “security.” Jacob commits to God; God commits to Jacob; even if there is conflict, they know they can’t turn away from each other forever.

Too often we find ourselves living out the push and pull of Jacob and Laban, each striving for dominance over the other. What we really need to do is hear the words of Jacob before he meets Laban, when he is able to articulate a vision of fundamental human needs. It should be the right of all to have these, and the responsibility of our society to set up a system that provides them. Because, unlike Jacob and Laban, we must raise up, rather than push down, our fellow members of society.


This is the week of reunions.

For many, the holiday of Thanksgiving means a reunion of sorts, a coming together with family and friends who we may only see this one time a year. This is one of the special aspects of holiday time, we not only connect with the spirit of the season, and not only eat special symbolic foods, but we renew relationships that are maintained, even in the age of Facebook, at a distance.

These reunions can sometimes be fraught. Each year at this time we come across magazine articles and blog posts about estrangement, how to navigate complex family dynamics, what to say to your racist uncle, how to graciously deflect questions about one’s own life choices, how to talk (or not talk) about politics, and on and on. The fact that Thanksgiving dinner can be a tinderbox waiting to explode is a cliché, but the power of clichés is that they carry some truth to them.

Thanksgiving falls this week as we turn in our Torah reading to the ultimate story of family estrangement and reunion—that of Jacob and Esau. The twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah were at odds since birth, and grew up with very different personalities and interests. In the Torah’s reading, it doesn’t seem like they ever got along. But things really took a turn for the worse when Jacob convinced Esau (who, though a twin, was technically older), to sell him his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. And later, with the coaxing of his mother, Jacob tricked his aging father to give him the blessing reserved for the firstborn. Biblical blessings are big deals—it means Jacob, and not Esau, would be the spiritual and economic heir of Isaac. With this final act, the paths of the brothers fully diverged.

But not completely, for in this week’s reading Jacob is preparing to be reunited with his estranged brother. Both have gone on in life to be successful, to increase their holdings and establish families and clans. Jacob is extremely nervous about what is to come, and sent ahead gifts to  placate a man who (in Jacob’s mind)had every reason to hate him and wish him ill. The text then says,

Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. Looking about, he saw the women and the children. “Who,” he asked, “are these with you?” He answered, “The children with whom God has favored your servant.” Then the maids, with their children, came forward and bowed low; next Leah, with her children, came forward and bowed low; and last, Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed low; And he asked, “What do you mean by all this company which I have met?” He answered, “To gain my lord’s favor.” Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” But Jacob said, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably. Please accept my present which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.” And when he urged him, he accepted. (Genesis 33:1-12)

Thus the fear the Jacob had, the anxiety about continued hatred, is for naught. Esau is happy to see him, and does not even want to accept his gifts. Jacob too is deeply moved to see his brother. While the text doesn’t speak of apologies and forgiveness, we can image that these took place. We have an example here of a renewed coming together of family members who were driven apart by their past behaviors.

Not completely, for after the meeting they both go their separate ways. But they have reunited, they have healed the relationship.

To add to this theme of reunions, last week attended my 25th high school reunion. It wasn’t a “formal” reunion with nametags featuring our senior class photos and a big banner announcing the “Class of 1990,” but rather a small informal gathering in the back of a bar in Manhattan organized by some of my classmates. And while I was already going to be on the east coast for the board meeting of my rabbinical association, I wasn’t planning on attending the reunion until a friend who lives in Wisconsin who I haven’t seen in those 25 years announced she was planning to attend.

reunion picture
Reunion group photo. Some folks had left by that point, but this is a good representation. I forgot who took the photo, but thanks for posting it on Facebook!

I met some folks for dinner beforehand, and headed off to the bar. It was a fun experience and I had a good time connecting with some old friends. I am glad I went.

It did give me some further perspectives on reunions and relationships:

One, a solid foundation transcends time. There were a few folks there who I had been friends with in high school, but circumstances and geography led to not keeping in touch so much. But in reconnecting, even after 25 years, it was easy to renew those ties. We were able to share our common experience, but it was more the deep feeling of trust and connection developed years ago that was able to transcend any temporal distance.

Two, the people I talked to in high school are the ones I talked to 25 years later. Probably because of observation number one above, it was easier to connect with those I had been friends with in high school than those I had not. At one point someone joked that it seemed like high school all over again, with groups and cliques forming. But probably more out of familiarity than out of exclusion, as others were also renewing connections based on deep feelings of trust and connection.

And three, the old rules don’t apply. Even though I hung out with mostly my closer friends, I was able to connect with folks who were not part of my social circle back then. We were different people now. Old grudges, when they existed, melted away. The separation and reunion provided new opportunities to establish relationships, to form friendships when they may have not have existed before.

Time is an amazing force. It has an amazing ability to heal and renew, but only if we are committed to that healing and renewal, if we are open to new possibilities, and if we are able to draw on a deep reserve of connection that binds us to others.

This is what Jacob experienced in his reunion with Esau. We can imagine that it was Jacob’s view of the relationship that maintained the estrangement. Jacob was at first unable to allow for the possibility that things could be different. Once he encountered his brother, however, he realized they could be. As brothers, they both had a deep well of relationship and feeling upon which to draw, and the time away from each other allowed both brothers to overcome the divide between them. The past doesn’t change, but it doesn’t determine the future.

We remember this as we move towards our own reunions. As we sit around the Thanksgiving table we may find that we are challenged. Deep seated feelings may arise for us. Differences may seem to outshine the similarities. But if we focus on that which brings us together rather than drives us apart, and remain open to that which may come, then our reunions will be happy ones. We will see in the face of others the face of God. And for that, we offer thanks.

Hello New Year, Goodbye New York

On Monday my parents got into their car and left New York for good.

It was a move they have been planning of late. My mother retired from teaching a few years ago, and my father was winding down his career as an attorney. Full retirement was on the horizon. My sister and I were no longer local. And while some of their friends were still nearby, others had moved away.

They sold their house—the house in which I grew up—a year ago and moved into an apartment temporarily. And when my

My childhood home
My childhood home

father’s retirement became official last week, they moved down to the Washington, DC area to be near my sister and brother-in-law and their two (soon, three) young children.

And with that, my parents, who lived in New York all of their lives—born, raised, college and graduate school, marriage and children—became Marylanders.

I left New York a long time ago. At 18 I set off for college, and after a year in Texas I did return to New York to live as an adult for a few years for work and graduate school (I was in school in New York but lived in New Jersey). But then seminary pulled me away to Philadelphia, and then the west coast beckoned, and I have happily made my home here in the other Washington. Over the years I still enjoyed visiting, though it was clear my home and the roots I was creating lay elsewhere.

Now, though, I can’t help feeling sad that a link to my past has been severed. Much moreso than when they sold the house, the fact that now should rabbinic work take me to New York they won’t be there, or when I go to visit them I will be going somewhere different, feels like a major shift.

We are a mobile society. And perhaps we always were. Especially as Jews. Save for a few founding members, members of the Olympia Jewish community are from somewhere else. And even for those long-standing members, you only need to go back a generation to see movement and wandering. My grandparents left New York for the Eden of Florida, my sister and I decamped to other locations. I just watched Fiddler on the Roof again, and it ends with a fuzzy, nostalgic (forced by pogroms!) exile from Russia to other parts. “Maybe, that’s why we always wear our hats,” quips one villager.

As a rabbi, I have witnessed the dynamic of parents moving to be closer to their children (or children moving their parents to be closer to them). As my parents follow the same path, I realize it is a dynamic as old as the Torah itself. This week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, is the end of the Joseph story, in which Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, becomes a high-ranking official in the Egyptian government. When he is reunited with this remorseful brothers, the family, including his father Jacob (his mother had died), move from Canaan to Egypt to be close to Joseph. Jacob moves his family and all his holdings to a new place to be closer to Joseph.

And this move sets the stage for the next chapter of Israelite history: the challenging but necessary story of enslavement and liberation, Exodus and wanderings. More mobility.

And indeed, today is the 10th of Tevet, a minor fast day in the Jewish calendar. It commemorates the besiegement of the walls of Jerusalem at the hands of King Nebuchadezzer and the Babylonians in 588 BCE, an act which ultimately lead to the walls’ breach, the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the community from Judea to Babylonia. The themes of exile and return also inform our Jewish consciousness. Again, more mobility.

It is mobility that defines us. We are dynamic, not static.

[As a side note: it is interesting to see how this mobile nature of Jewish community is impacting the conversations we have around cremation. This has become more of an active issue in Jewish communal life as more and more people are choosing to be cremated upon death. While this is not in keeping with Jewish tradition, which mandates in-ground burial, it is a reality. And part of the reason given is because of this mobility—with families stretched out in different directions, who will be present and available to visit a grave regularly? One of the last acts my parents did in New York was visit the gravesite of my paternal grandparents. And this tension between death and “place” is present in the Torah reading this week as Jacob dies in Egypt, but insists on being buried in Canaan.]

So the new year brings a new reality for my family, and a new stage of life for my parents. I’m excited for them and their new adventures. And while we will still be far away, I have the feeling that we will see them more often. We maintain the roots to the past, but also welcome the future. And when we go visit, we will simply take in the Smithsonian, rather than the Met.