Three Jewish mothers are sitting on a bench, arguing over which one’s son loves her the most. The first one says, “you know, my son sends me flowers every Shabbos”.
“You call that love?” says the second mother. “My son calls me every day!”
“That’s nothing,” says the third woman. “My son is in therapy five days a week. And the whole time, he talks about me!”
Families! They are at the heart of Jewish culture and tradition. The centre of our religious practice. Families are the very cornerstone of the Jewish people. Yet they are the source of so many trials and tribulations. I challenge anyone here who says they haven’t had a broiges with a member of their family!
And so, with Parashat Vayechi, we conclude the book of Genesis, with Jacob blessing his 12 sons – and 2 grandsons – before passing away in Egypt age 147. He is then buried, as per his wishes, in the cave of Machpelah, alongside his parents and grandparents in Canaan. Later, Joseph’s brothers fear that, now Jacob is no longer alive, he will seek retribution against them for their earlier treatment of him. After assuring them that he won’t, Joseph himself eventually dies at the age of 111.
For the past 12 weeks since Simchat Torah we have been listening to the story of Genesis, the great history of the world’s creation, our early patriarchs and the journey towards Egypt. And that is how I have always understood the dramas of Genesis – as a history of epic proportions.
That is until I stumbled across some of the insights of the former Chief Rabbi, Professor Dr Jonathan Sacks, who it turns out is rather more of a Progressive than I had previously realised. Rabbi Sacks suggests that to understand a book, you need to study the ending very carefully. Interesting, I thought, because I always think of Genesis as “Bereishit”. In the beginning (or as Rabbi Strasko recently explained, perhaps more accurately “In a beginning”, but that’s another story).
So, in Parashat Vayechi, Genesis ends, according to Rabbi Sacks, with 3 deeply significant scenes. First, Jacob blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Menasheh, something we repeat today when we bless our children. This is the only occasion of a grandparent blessing their grandchildren in the entire Torah. Second, Jacob blesses his 12 sons, though it should be noted that the blessings to his 3 eldest sons, Reuven, Shimon and Levi are somewhat double-edged, and reflect a significant amount of tension in the family. And third, after the death of Jacob, the brothers ask Joseph to forgive them, which he does.
So, at the end of Genesis, the message is that Family – above all else – is what matters and that the resolution of family tensions and disagreements is necessary before the page can be turned and Exodus – the story of how Jewish nationhood comes about – can begin. As Rabbi Sacks put it, “how could they live together as a people, if they couldn’t even live together as a family?” And he concluded that Genesis is not about power, as is often asserted, but about family.
I think he has a valid point. Consider the numerous stories about sibling rivalry throughout Genesis – a repeated theme. Cain and Abel. Isaac and Ishmael. Jacob and Esau. Joseph and his brothers. In every generation, there is a massive broiges between siblings. And so it continues today, usually with jealousy at the heart of it. Only the other day, I was discussing with a friend how she had fallen out with her twin sister and they had barely spoken for many years, despite living in close proximity to one another. She couldn’t understand what had caused the fall-out, but on closer questioning it became clear that the root was childhood jealousy, which had grown into adult resentment.
But in Vayechi, the message is loud and clear. Jacob blessed all of his sons, despite their transgressions, including a previous major fall-out with Reuven. Joseph forgave his brothers for leaving him for dead, once they had demonstrated teshuvah – repentance – for what they had done to him, and he reconciled with them. And by blessing his grandsons and effectively adopting them as his own, Jacob highlighted the importance of family and of continuity through the generations.
We often hear today how the traditional family unit is disappearing and that this is a major cause of society’s problems. And there is no doubt that what we might have thought of as the traditional nuclear family has evolved into something more varied and fluid in the modern age. Rabbi Sacks’s thesis is that the Torah demonstrates the importance of keeping the family together and interprets that in a way that favours the traditional nuclear family as a foundation for a successful and harmonious society.
And this is where I respectfully differ. Family is important. And conflict within families can be extremely damaging. But, I would suggest, what constitutes a family (which may be usefully thought of as a close network of relationships), is of less importance than the real message in Vayechi – and indeed in the whole of Genesis. Genesis is not really about the physical creation of the world. It is about how to handle family conflict and, furthermore, how to handle conflict more broadly.
It is only once Abraham’s descendants have resolved their conflicts and created a strong family that they can then begin Exodus and start to build a strong nation.
I have spent most of my life in conflict with someone or other – I know it’s hard to believe…. Broiges is part of the Jewish way of life. We can laugh about it. But at some point, the joke becomes something that is much more serious.
And in recent times, it has felt as though conflict and violent disagreement has become all-pervasive in society in a way that is becoming extremely dangerous. We can’t solve the country’s or the world’s problems but we can start closer to home. The lesson from Vayechi is that building a strong network around us is of key importance. And that, to achieve that, requires us to be open and honest with each other – to practice teshuvah, owning our mistakes, and to forgive others when they are genuine in their remorse.
And perhaps, if we can improve our relationships with those closest to us – as Jacob and Joseph did - we can do our bit to remove conflict from the world.