In traditional Jewish communities, the family is the locus. Even after the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis wisely transferred authority from the priests to parents. Witness the traditional priestly blessing, which the rabbis reappropriated for parents to say over their children in the home. And the transition of central locus from the temple, where sacrifices were made to God, to the home, where Shabbat candles were kindled and Hanukkah lamps were lit, represented a major shift in rabbinic Judaism to focus on the home and on family.
Many adults with living parents put much energy into these relationships. If there are siblings, we attempt to stay in touch, to see each other as often as we can. And we expend a great deal of time caring for and nurturing our children. Judaism tells us that we are to prioritize our life values by placing our families first.
In Parashat Vayigash, we read, “And Joseph kissed all his brothers and wept upon them and after that his brothers spoke with him” (Genesis 45:15). We see Joseph and his brothers going to extreme measures in their attempts to honor their family relationships. Joseph’s brothers engage in meeting his demands while balancing their obligations to their father, Jacob, who fears losing his youngest son, Benjamin. Joseph struggles with his own anger at his brothers, while knowing that he ultimately wants to reconcile with them.
Before he uncovers his true identity, however, Joseph sends all of the Egyptians out of the room. Rashi, the medieval French commentator, tells us the reason Joseph did this was to spare them from being shamed in front of the Egyptians, his community. Even in his anger, Joseph is thinking about his brothers’ dignity.
And so the rest of the story plays out in a splendid fairy tale fashion. Reconciliation and forgiveness are all a part of the majestic scene, and as Jacob is brought down to Egypt, they are once again a big, happy family.
But where does this picture-perfect scene leave us? What if our personal narrative reads of a botched reconciliation or a nonexistent one? What if we are not able to make that dramatic scene of forgiveness happen? What if our family life is not the scene of mutual acceptance and peace?
Many of us know this painful reality. We have attempted multiple times to reconcile, but have been rebuffed. We have gingerly tried to open the conversation, but have abruptly been told there was no conversation to be had. We have made efforts to honor the family connection, but to our chagrin have been told it wasn’t worth our effort. Some of us have even found ourselves in familial relationships that pose harm to us, either physically or psychologically.
There is an old, wise saying that you can pick your friends, but not your family. While that may be true in the most literal sense, Jewish tradition sagely does place limits on how far we must go to honor these relationships and what our obligations are in reconciling with those who have hurt us and those whom we have hurt. Sometimes we must step away from these difficult relationships or radically alter our expectations of them. And we must consistently seek out our own community of supportive and loving relationships to help meet our needs. We can be a loving family to each other, when the family in which we were raised fails to meet that need for us.
A Judaism focused on community and on supporting each other can help us create a different reality. Judaism makes this claim on us by asking us to open up our homes and families to others. And for those of us who want family in our lives, we must express the need to be a part of the family and contribute to it. As Jane Howard, author of the 1998 book “Families,” put it: “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”
Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at email@example.com.