From Family Dysfunction to Reconciliation: Torah History and Hope for All of Us

Pontormo, Joseph with Jacob in Egypt, probably 1518. National Gallery of Art, London
Pontormo, Joseph with Jacob in Egypt, probably 1518. National Gallery of Art, London

A favorite movie quote of mine, uttered in a nebbishy voice, is: “I think everything must go back to the fact that I had a very anxious childhood. My mother never had time for me. You know when you’re…when you’re the middle child in a family of 5 million, you don’t get any attention.” So said Z, a worker ant in the movie, “Antz.” But it could almost be a quote out of Genesis, a textbook of family dysfunction.

I spent a lot of years working with divorce, families that, by definition, ceased to function. In my litigation days, I saw multi-generational abuse, children used as pawns, being traded for assets, complete estrangement, and all kinds of horrors and traumas. In my mediation days I worked with parents who desperately wanted to figure out how to work together for their children, often successfully, but sometimes unable to break the chain of generational dysfunction.

Dysfunctional families are breeding grounds for secrecy, addiction, neglect and abuse. In these family systems, children’s emotional needs go unmet. Then these children pass that on to their children.

Bereshit, the first book of Torah, emphasizes dysfunctional family relationships. If you have family problems, this book gives consolation, telling you that you are not alone. Almost every family in that biblical book is deeply troubled. But, they almost always also show some possibility of transformation and reconciliation. We see favoritism, rivalry, dysfunction but then teshuvah, return to the right path, transformation and healing.

In Torah, as soon as there is family, there is family dysfunction. So a quick biblical history of dysfunction, perhaps with a dose of cynicism that becoming clergy did not take out of me.

Answering to God, Adam throws Eve under the bus, and one of their sons kills the other. Ham does something very wrong to his drunken father Noah. In Egypt, Abraham tells Sarah to pretend to be his sister to protect himself. Not quite “Princess Bride”-level true love. Sarah gave Hagar to Abe. Hagar gets pregnant, Sarah tells Abe, “You are responsible for my suffering, get rid of Hagar and Ishmael.” He does, demonstrating his version of responsibility. Lot’s daughters seduce him, but only after he offers them to a mob looking to rape and sodomize. In the penultimate family dysfunction, Abraham goes to sacrifice his son. He moves to Beersheba, while Sarah stays and dies in Hebron, thus effectuating the first legal separation due to unresolved trauma.

Isaac and Rebecca play favorites. Isaac preferred Esau, Rebecca preferred Jacob. Esau, in fact, inspired Tommy Smothers to say, “Mom always liked you best.” Deception abounds. Jacob tricked Isaac, he is tricked by Laban. Rachel helps the trickery, and then steals from her father. Jacob, raised with favoritism, parents with favoritism.

Joseph’s arrival heralds one of the greatest sibling rivalries ever. His story gives us everything a family saga needs. Jacob gives Joseph an “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Joseph interprets dreams and behaves like a little brat. Jacob has a great idea and sends Joseph out to spy, expecting him to rat his brothers out. They jump the gun, sell Joe into slavery, and lie about it for 22 years. Did Jacob learn from this? No, he just switches his favoritism to Benjamin.

Mid-Joseph story, Tamar is seducing Judah, getting pregnant and sentenced to death. But Judah steps up. Aha, a hint of future transformation for Judah?

Joseph became Egypt’s No. 2 man. As he had this power, he rushed out to let his father know he was OK.  Wait, my mistake, he didn’t do that. Instead, he basically disowned his family, even his poor father. Couldn’t he tell how distressed his father would be? Don’t children ever worry about us?

Did he blame Jacob for what his brothers did? If he were only mad at his brothers, he would sent his Dad a text. But, alas, it’s another son blaming his father. In Egypt, Joseph took on a new identity, with a new name, homeland, and family. His brothers and his father, were out of sight and out of mind. If the brothers did not come to Egypt, they would have starved and he would not have known. But he should have known, no one escapes his family of origin.

We do see clues about a better possible future. He named his first son Menasheh, meaning “For God has made me forget all the troubles I endured in my father’s house.” This is like telling us to remember to forget Amalek. A constant reminder to forget is still a reminder. Does he somehow ignore his troubled past? He appears to be thriving. The past may not yet be forgotten or forgiven, but is not controlling his future.

After twenty-two years, Joseph’s brothers appear. He has the home court advantage. He recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. He could greet his brothers with open arms. He could confront them and chastise them for their abusive acts. He could exact revenge. But no, he tests them.

Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev said this action was justified because of Joseph’s earlier dreams. He explained that the brothers would have harbored ill will as soon as they realized Joseph’s dreams came true. Joseph’s actions (in Levi Yitzhak’s words), were acts of compassion and humility. Sometimes we have to hide our strengths, our titles, or our talents out of respect for the others, to make sure they are not humiliated. Joseph recognizes his brothers by their appearance, and again, in Levi Yitzhak’s words, not mine, also by the wounds on their souls; wounds partially caused by him. By disguising himself, the Berditchever shows us, Joseph was actually increasing his own self-awareness and his potential for healing.

Despite Levi Yitzhak’s kind interpretation, I think Joseph did not reveal himself and instead tested his brother’s loyalty, because he wanted to see two things: were they sorry for what they did to him, and would they treat Benjamin the same way. He wanted them to prove themselves worthy of a reconciliation. Something most of us want as part of our forgiveness.

There is an impressively sly acknowledgement that the brothers may be on the way to transforming. After their first trip to Egypt, they are called Jacob’s sons. On their way back for a second time, they are referred to as Joseph’s brothers. Rashi said, “they set their hearts on conducting themselves toward him as brothers.” I’m not so sure, but since every word of Torah has meaning, we must consider that the language suggests the start of their change.

Another sign: when Simeon is kept prisoner, they worry about going back to Jacob without him. The brothers cry: “Oh, we are being punished on account of our brother! We saw his soul’s distress when he pleaded with us, but we didn’t listen …” We never knew Joseph had pleaded with them. It wasn’t in the story. But now we see the brothers focusing on his feelings, his distress. The commentators point out this show of empathy. It really was not present before, now it is, as a necessary element of teshuvah, necessary for healing and reconciliation.

The brothers tell dad that Simeon was left behind, and they need to go back, this time with Benjamin. Jacob said “no way are you taking my favorite remaining son, to trade for one I don’t like that much anyway.” Well, maybe he did not say those exact words, but he thought them. With guilt added to empathy for the brothers, Reuben offered to put his own sons to death if Benjamin was not returned. Losing two grandchildren in addition to Benjamin just did not seem to make Jacob feel better. But it was a breakthrough for Reuben. And Judah, having learned something about responsibility from Tamar, steps up. Taking responsibility, a huge step toward healing.

Many commentators say Judah and his brothers are here making peace with their father’s favoritism. They realize that getting rid of Joseph in response to Jacob’s favoritism didn’t make any difference. Nor will hurting Jacob or Benjamin get them any more love and attention. So they choose a different path, taking responsibility instead of finding others to blame, which puts them on the right path. How many of us wish we could come to a peaceful place of acceptance of our history?

When the brothers return with Benjamin, Joseph is overcome with emotion and asks: “How is your Dad. He still alive?” It is said that in that emotional moment, Joseph realizes that he stayed in Egypt not to avoid facing his family, but to avoid facing himself. His brothers had done wrong, but his attitude certainly contributed. And there was plenty to blame for Jacob, but it was Joseph’s obligation, even before the tablets were received, to honor his father. So, when he asks his brothers about Jacob, he was showing a different Joseph, engaging in teshuva, getting on the right path, showing a Jacob who is starting to emotionally heal, and ready to at least metaphorically, come home.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l, in a wonderful d’var, says this is the first recorded instance of forgiveness. A humanity changing event. The brothers pass Joseph’s tests by showing remorse, admission of guilt and confession, and behavioral change when they try to protect the favored youngest brother. These are the elements of teshuva, transformation and healing, allowing for forgiveness and even reconciliation.

We should note, Genesis portrayed every one of its families as difficult, because they were. Torah is painfully honest about our heroes: the patriarchs, the matriarchs — and later about Moses, Aaron and King David — are portrayed as flawed human beings. Torah shows us that even great men and women have family problems, and makes it clear that family pain and tragedy and dysfunction are the human norm, not the exception.

And perhaps the message to take from Bereshit, is not just that dysfunction and sibling rivalry are constant, but that there is always the possibility for family members to reconcile, even after years of strife.

Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, all reconcile in some fashion. The past does not determine the future, and at every moment we can choose teshuva. Even Joseph and his brothers heal, forgive and reconcile. And coming very soon, in Exodus, the next book, the central characters show they learned from the Genesis families. We will read of siblings Moses, Aaron and Miriam, who despite disagreements and jealousies, often function collaboratively. We can always learn, transform, and have the possibility of reconciliation and healing. Always means it is never too late. You are never too old.


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