A woman in our congregation once came to see me with a heavy heart. Her son was soon to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah. She told me a sad but unfortunately all too familiar tale of enmity and anger, silence and deep-seated hurt between members of her immediate family. How her mother hadn’t spoken to her brother in years, and her father hadn’t spoken to her sister in years, and neither the father nor the mother (both divorced now) had spoken to each other for years either. With a kind of wry sense of humor she said, “So Rabbi, if you were planning on speaking at my son’s Bar Mitzvah about the service being a reflection of a loving, caring, Jewish family, you might want to reconsider.”
The saddest part of the story was not merely that she was the one family member who still spoke to everyone, and as such was the center around which so much of their individual anger and misplaced emotions swirled, but that she was seeing her beloved son’s Bar Mitzvah through the lens of her own family’s dysfunction. There was simply no way she could stand back and enjoy the excitement of the upcoming event and the eagerness with which her son had thrown himself into his preparations.
For this unfortunate young woman, the weight of her family’s inability to forgive each other for whatever past wrongs and hurts each had committed against the other, was keeping her awake at night and causing her to dread what should be a joyous and exquisitely meaningful shared family experience.
I had tears in my eyes as she described her suffering, and my heart broke for the burden she seemed to carry for them all.
The saddest part for me as a rabbi is that I see so many families just like the family of this mother. I see them as they gather for the bar or bat mitzvah, and sit on opposite sides of the sanctuary. I see them as I prepare for funerals and have to go first to one home and then to another to speak with members of the family about a loved one who has died, since they are unwilling even in grief to sit together in the same living room and share their tears and memories.
I see it at weddings and naming ceremonies where people’s feelings are so easily hurt unintentionally by not being mentioned, or mentioned enough, or mentioned with proper honor and respect, with the result that grudges are held sometimes forever.
I see all this, and hear all the stories of family disharmony, and jealousy, and hurt, and it breaks my heart. Perhaps that is why every single Biblical family in the Book of Genesis is a tale of disharmony, envy, and anger, with brothers fighting and parents taking sides. Perhaps these stories were told because they so directly touched on the emotional lives of everyone who heard them.
If so, then there is also a reason that every single story of family upset and dysfunction ends with the ultimate reconciliation of brothers and reunification of the family in one form or another. And perhaps that is why the Book of Genesis itself comes to its dramatic conclusion with the death of Jacob/Israel, who is the father of the Children of Israel, of the sons (and grandsons) who will compose the twelve tribes of Israel and through them the entire Jewish people.
For after Jacob dies, his sons who carry with them the guilt of having sold their brother Joseph into slavery so many years ago, are afraid that since they have never forgotten their evil deed that Joseph, too might be harboring resentment toward them for all these years and has only been waiting for their father to die to exact his revenge.
All of us who are the readers of the story can understand their fear. We know what they did to Joseph and the position of power he now occupies. We know how easy it would be for him to take his revenge and what a natural human desire that must have been. Perhaps that is why one of the most touching and beautiful passages in the entire Torah comes at the end of this week’s portion, after Jacob has been buried and the brothers turn in fear to face Joseph once again.
Joseph provides a poignant and powerful lesson to us all. For he turns to his brothers and says simply, “Don’t be afraid.” And then the Torah tells us, “He comforted them, and spoke to their hearts.”
It’s an incredible story. Joseph comforts his brothers – the same brothers who once sold him into slavery in a fit of jealousy and rage – and instead of carrying on the hurt and anger from one generation to the next, speaks to their hearts and stops the cycle of pain and retribution forever.
I thought of the portion as that mother sat in my study that afternoon. “If only the members of her family could be like Joseph,” I thought. Perhaps true strength of character is the strength to forgive those who are closest to us when they hurt us. Perhaps the courage and strength of Joseph can be our personal model when others hurt us as well. For greatness comes in many forms, and the courage to forgive another is one of the greatest of all.