One question I had: What lessons can we learn from family stories in the Torah?
I remember one rabbi telling me, for instance, that the story of Jacob and Joseph teaches us that showing favoritism to one child over the others can lead to strife. I'd love to know what other wisdom we can learn from the Bible's family stories. (And do you agree with the rabbi's interpretation of Jacob and Joseph?)
Your rabbi friend was telling you what the commentators wrote and is well known.
The value of the Torah is not that it is merely our history, but that it is the ongoing story of our lives today. Every occurrence recorded in our "Biblical" history is there for us to learn how to guide our lives.
As for a prime example of something that happened way back then that virtually no one relates to in their own life, but is truly essential, is the story of Yacov, Rachel and Leah.
Yacov meets Rachel and she is beautiful. Yacov falls in love with Rachel and Yacov marries Rachel. Yacov goes to sleep with Rachel and Yacov wakes up with Leah! Leah is Rachel's sister and she is plain looking… Yacov would not marry her but Rachel's and Leah' father switched the girls without Yacov knowing it!
Yikes! What a miserable disaster. Rachel is beautiful…Leah is not. Yacov loves and marries Rachel and now he has ended up with Leah. It turns out that he has to be with Leah for the week, and then he can also marry Rachel and have both of them for wives.
What can we learn about this unique and once in the history of the world occurrence?
When you stop and think of it…everyone marries Rachel and everyone wakes up with Leah. Rachel is beautiful and Yacov falls in love with her for that reason. Rachel is Yacov's earthly wife, the one he physically loves. Leah is plain looking so Yacov does not want to marry her, but really Leah is Yacov's spiritual wife, the one Hashem has chosen for him, so Hashem, (in the guise of Leah's father) puts her into Yacov's arms.
All of us marry Rachel, the one we love and think is so beautiful, our earthly wives… but then, after the first month or two, or after the first year or so, we look over at our wife Rachel, and see that she is really Leah. The earthly beauty becomes familiar after a while and we see that indeed we have married our spiritual wives the ones Hashem intended for us to marry.