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Parshat Vayetze: Dear father-in-law
By Rabbi Avi Billet
November 27 2009/ 10 Cheshvan 5770
Before they went out of style, mother-in-law jokes were very popular. Have you ever heard of a father-in-law joke? I have not, but I suppose if anyone were to author such a joke, it would be our forefather Yaakov.
Consider this sequence of events, in chapter 29:14-28: Yaakov arrives in Charan and stays with Lavan for a month because he is a blood relative. Then Lavan tells him, “Just because you are my close relative, does it mean that you must work for me for nothing? Tell me what you want to be paid.”
While there is no indication that Yaakov was planning to freeload, it is also not clear that he was looking to work for Lavan. One can imply from Lavan’s words that, “You will work for me if you plan to stay here.” And the question becomes “for what wages?”
Due to his love for Rachel, he offers to work for seven years to marry her. 29:19 indicates this arrangement was agreeable to Lavan, who then offered room (and board?) to remain at status quo.
To think wedding plans were put on a back burner until the seven-year engagement period was up is hard to reconcile. Nonetheless, Yaakov needed to remind Lavan when it was time to live up to his end of the agreement. “The time is up. Give me my bride and let me marry her.”
The father-in-law switches the brides and agrees to make amends after a week of celebrations. Mind you, he does not simply apologize and give Rachel to Yaakov. He only allows the originally planned couple to marry in exchange for another coerced seven years of work.
One wonders how Lavan viewed his relationship with Yaakov. Did he admire and respect his son-in-law in any way, even minimally, as the father of Lavan’s grandchildren?
In 30:26, after having worked for 14 years to marry Lavan’s daughters, Yaakov respectfully requests permission to return home, along with his wives. Lavan convinces him to stay with a new “contract,” negotiated on Yaakov’s terms, and Yaakov works for an additional six years.
After fortunes turn and Yaakov feels, once again, that it is time to leave, he tells his wives of his intentions. Their response is ‘Do we then still have a portion and an inheritance in our father’s estate? Why, he treats us like strangers! He has sold us and spent the money! All the wealth that G-d has taken from our father actually belongs to us and our children. Now, whatever G-d has said to you, do it!’ (31:14-16)
And so he leaves.
Lavan discovers the flight, chases after Yaakov’s family, and a series of verbal exchanges plays out like this.
Lavan: How could you do this? You went behind my back and led my daughters away like prisoners of war! Why did you have to leave so secretly?…I would have sent you off with celebration and song, with drum and lyre! [but no money] You didn’t even let me kiss my grandsons and daughters goodbye.
Yaakov: …I thought that you might take your daughters away from me by force… By day I was consumed by the scorching heat, and at night by the frost, when sleep was snatched from my eyes. [I lived the life of a slave!] Twenty years now I have worked for you in your estate — fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for some of your flocks. You changed my wages ten times!
Lavan: The daughters are my daughters! The sons are my sons! The flocks are my flocks! All that you see is mine! But my daughters…what can I do to them today? Or to the children they have borne?
Yaakov always viewed his arrangement with Lavan as a financial one. It seems Lavan always viewed it as servitude, if not slavery. This is why he gave wives to his slave. This is why he feels the women and children belong to him. This is why the periods of service were six or seven years (see Exodus 21).
While I, thankfully, have not met too many people like Lavan, I have met sons-in-law who have felt similar to Yaakov in the way they are viewed and, in some cases, treated, by their in-laws.
If, as a parent, you trust your daughter enough to pay for (at least part of) her wedding, then the next step is to welcome the son-in-law into the family. If he ends up working for you, you can treat him nicely because he is married to your daughter, but don’t make him your slave because you provide his living. If he walks all over you and doesn’t work properly, give him severance and make his position go away.
At the same time, a son-in-law who doesn’t want to feel enslaved to his father-in-law ought to make important, thought-out decisions about how indebted you want to be to your father-in-law.
Finally, all parents who are looking to be future grandparents who have a relationship with their grandchildren ought to think about what will happen when the son-in-law gets the guts to move on with his life, cut the coattails and make a go of life independent of your input.
He wants to be married to your daughter. But he does not want to be married to you.
The author has a wonderfully healthy relationship with his in-laws.