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Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Vayechi                          January 11, 2020 - 14 Tevet 5780

01/09/2020 01:21:31 PM


Mary Karr, an American poet, essayist and memoirist, known for her bestselling memoir, The Liars' Club once quipped: “I think a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one person in it.”  And George Burns remarked: “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family—in another city.” Truth be told, most families are like fudge: mostly sweet with a few nuts! No family is immune; I often hear people say: “We put the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional.” Well, this week’s Torah portion not only concludes the Book of Genesis, but will finish the saga of a family that, in modern terms, was seriously dysfunctional.

Rabbi Shaina Bacharach, in her comments on the Torah reading, reports that, looking at the facts while ignoring the spiritual implications of those facts, for the moment, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Judaism were familially dysfunctional.

First, Abraham expelled his concubine Hagar and son Ishmael from the family home. He did so at his wife Sarah's insistence. While Ishmael had to cope with his father's outright rejection, Isaac was surely left with his own feelings of insecurity and a nagging question if he did something to displease his mother or father, would his parents kick him out of the house like they did his brother? Second, Abraham nearly killed Isaac, his remaining son. Despite the religious implications of this event, Isaac probably suffered serious post-traumatic stress syndrome. Whether his near death experience was a murder attempt or a Divinely ordained sacrifice, this incident could not possibly soothe Isaac's feelings of insecurity that resulted from his brother's expulsion.

Third, Isaac married his cousin Rebecca, and they had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. The parents openly played favorites, thus setting up an intense sibling rivalry resulting in deception by Jacob and death threats by Esau. And fourth, Jacob left home because of Esau's threats. After leaving Canaan, Jacob married two of his cousins, the sisters Leah and Rachel. He loved only Rachel, but got stuck with Leah as well. Then Jacob wound up with two concubines, Zilpah and Bilhah, both handmaids of his wives. Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, her second child. Between both wives and the concubines, Jacob had 13 children. However, the sisters did not get along, and Jacob openly favored Joseph over his other children resulting in deception attempted murder, and the brothers selling Joseph as a slave.

It seems clear that bad parenting by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob created harmful behavior patterns among their children. Moreover, each generation transmitted these destructive tendencies to the next generation – and the family situation just got worse and worse. The same patterns repeat themselves for four generations, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jacob's sons. Again and again, we see favoritism, deception, death threats, and murder attempts. If this is really the case with our beloved Patriarchs and Matriarchs, why do we hold them in such esteem?

Three times a day, we recite our most central prayer, the Amidah. How do we begin? In effect, we say to God: we don't dare approach You on our own merits. We ask you to remember the great merit of our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We ask you to bless us on their account. We can understand this saga but we must change our perspective. The issue isn't what we see, but how. For instance: do we listen to someone's life story, and hear only the problems, only see what they're doing wrong? When we look out on our own lives, do we focus on what's wrong and ignore the good things? Do we see through eyes of compassion? If we see tragic behavior patterns in others do we simply get angry and look down on them? Or, do we try to understand the pain that drove them to their actions. That doesn't mean we justify harmful behaviors! We shouldn't condone destructive behavior; we must also take care that we don't harden our hearts and stay open to the virtue of rachmanut, compassion. Do we understand that people work with the life tools they grow up with? If no one shows them a different and better way to do things, they're going to have a difficult time correcting their mistakes!

Let's take another look at our patriarchs. The first thing we must accept: all families are “dysfunctional” to some degree. How could it be otherwise? We're all human! If we look back at our own lives, we're going to see behavior patterns that are sometimes positive, and sometimes not. We're flawed. It's important to recognize our own flaws because then we can be more understanding of others. So it is with our patriarchal ancestors. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob grew up in a period of rampant: idolatry, corruption, and sexual immorality. Our patriarchs sprang from the ancient Mesopotamian culture where law codes made it clear, human life in itself wasn't sacred. Everything depended on one's social and economic status. Survival in that culture didn't depend on honesty, but shrewdness, which often meant lying and manipulating. In other words, if we look at the world that gave birth to Abraham, Isaac,and Jacob and Jacob's children we don't find a world shining with God's light, let alone the magnificence of Torah. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all found God's light; they found His light shining in a very dark world. Our next step is to recognize the many positive attributes of our ancestors: generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, and devotion to God.

All is lost if we only see their negative points. All is lost if we only see each other's negative points! Do we look at the patriarchs and see only what they did that we think was wrong? Or do we look at Abraham Isaac and Jacob, and see astounding growth and accomplishments that they overcame incredible obstacles and brought us to worship the Kadosh Barukh Hu (the Holy Blessed One). And how does this play out in our own lives? Do we notice what our friend - or child - or spouse is doing wrong - and not see their goodness? Do we look at the synagogue, its events, people, organizations, and see only what's wrong or do we step back and look at a bigger picture and find that there's so much going on that's right?! Of course, we can't ignore problems. That way, we certainly can't improve anything! But if we see nothing but the problems we stay equally stuck.

The Genesis stories teach us that we must look beyond the negatives of a given situation. We cannot look at just the facts; we must also see life with a “wide angle lens,” look at the whole of a situation, see the good, and have a heart of compassion. And most importantly, see how we can use this viewpoint to teach us how to find God and live by the precepts of Torah.

Shabbat Shalom!

Sun, August 9 2020 19 Av 5780