FROM OUR PRESIDENT…
This year, as we move through the month of November toward secular Thanksgiving (which barely gets in before Chanukah begins), in our weekly Torah readings we encounter the troubled family histories of the patriarchs and matriarchs. The month begins with the bitter fraternal conflict between Jacob and Esau. It then discusses Jacob’s problematic relationships with his father-in-law and his acknowledged and unacknowledged wives and reveals the horrific tale of Dinah’s rape and her brothers’ bloody revenge. The last parashah of the month winds up with Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery, Judah’s unintentional fathering of two sons with his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar, and Joseph’s narrow escape from consequences for a false accusation of rape by his employer’s wife. If nothing else, anyone who makes it through a close study this month will hopefully find that any long-buried family disputes or tensions that trouble their Thanksgiving gatherings pale in comparison.
Our history could provide decades of full employment for an entire office of family therapists. Some of the problems relate to the ancient structural practices of favoring first-born sons, encouraging multiple wives, viewing women’s sexuality as a possession of the men in their lives and the curious practice of Levirate marriage (in which the brother of a deceased man is required to wed his widow). Others, however, look even to our modern eyes to be timeless conflicts and psychological harms. They arise from parental favoring of some children over others, jealousy, infertility in a culture that highly values motherhood, accusations of sexual assault and misconduct and the responses to these accusations. We know the story, so it’s no spoiler to reveal that the children of Jacob, except for Dinah, all wind up reconciling. Nonetheless, Jacob’s life ends on a somewhat disquieting note. He distributes both blessings and curses to his sons. He also replicates the favoring of a younger child over an older one that marked his own life irrevocably, privileging Joseph’s younger son Ephraim over his elder son Manasseh.
These stories don’t guide us through our own struggles with our natal families. They do underline the power of family connections, and we see the Eternal continuing to commit to the children of Israel despite their jealousies, sins and struggles with each other. But these struggles come off in the text as real and deeply bitter – one can’t imagine Joseph and his brothers being able to sit down together for a festive meal for appearance’s sake, or even in order to make their own father feel better. Only by going through a long process of loss and mourning on both sides were they able to reach a place where reconciliation was possible.
Even in that space, as modern readers we mark the disappearance of Dinah from the text, her tragedy having erased her from memory. This may not be so alien to those of us who have seen irrevocable rifts open in our own families. We may gather for holiday celebrations only to feel an absence wrought by death or estrangement that is too difficult to speak or acknowledge, and so it remains silent but felt.
For this Thanksgiving, many of us will be grateful for what we have and for the people who remain in our lives. We have managed to navigate the last year and a half, despite difficulty, anxiety and tragedy, which we have all experienced to different degrees. Some of us, however, struggle with big holiday gatherings where everyone is expected to embrace and project an unproblematic façade of love, joy and family togetherness, despite the persistence of pain and trauma. Others may find our deepest joy and gratitude by gathering with our families of choice.
Regardless, Thanksgiving provides us with an opportunity to reflect both critically and lovingly on what we have gained from our family relationships, even those that have been complicated. Further, keeping in mind the complexity and ambiguity of how love and connections sometimes work in families may help us to understand our companions and friends who find the season of large family gatherings to be difficult.
I wish you all a happy and healthy month of November and a meaningful and positive Thanksgiving!