"Loving the Family Who Drives Us Crazy.” The holiday conundrum.
Loving the Family
Next week is Thanksgiving. It is a wonderful secular holiday, though it is full of Jewish values like being grateful, and saying blessings for what you have. It’s a family holiday, where people come together from near and far, from hither and yon, and eat at the same table, break bread, and share memories, stories, love and laughter.
And I don’t know about you, but I am stressed out about it.
I love my extended family. I do. They’re just… a little crazy-making. I haven’t even left the city yet, and I already know that my sister-in-law will still hold a grudge against my cousin for something that their kids said to each other two Thanksgivings ago. My aunt will bring sweet potato pie, not pumpkin, and an uncle will think that’s a catastrophe. Someone will say something to annoy someone else, they’ll argue, they’ll make up, or not make up, and either way, my head will spin. I will either fight to not be caught in the middle, or I’ll find myself trying to make peace, or I will studiously avoid them. I will not be surprised by this. My birthright is one of drama. Of mishegoss, of craziness.
I take great satisfaction in knowing that this mishegoss starts early on in our tradition. In this week’s parasha, Toldot, Esau trades his birthright to his younger brother, Jacob, for a couple bowls of lentil soup. Two chapters later, Jacob, with his mother’s help, receives Esau’s blessing from their father. It’s all very straightforward, until of course, Esau finds out and threatens to kill Jacob, forcing him to flee into exile… and it goes downhill from there.
What I find most fascinating, is not the story of spousal miscommunication, nor that of the sibling rivalry. I am most intrigued that what comes first in the story is the birthright, and not the blessing. In Biblical times, a birthright was not something minor – it was a title of great importance, a symbol of Esau’s status as future family patriarch and ruler. When he sold it to Jacob, Esau chose to renounce his future standing in the family. And Jacob knowingly took on that responsibility.
In this crazy year, it is all of our birthrights, in a sense, to take care of our families. It is a duty, a responsibility. When our children are young, we provide dinner every night, schedule dentist appointments, and help them with homework. When they get older, we give them car keys, pay college tuition, and help them do their taxes. Many of us also provide for our parents, giving them their pills twice a day if they can’t keep track themselves, and supporting them financially if Social Security isn’t enough. We go to Thanksgiving dinner not necessarily because we want to be there, but because our family members might be offended if we stay home. And like it or not, we’re family.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. Caring for our families out of duty keeps the children fed and the bills paid. But it isn’t complete. For when we think of family merely as an obligation, as a responsibility, we are choosing the birthright without the blessing, the responsibility without the joy.
On the other hand – we have the option of choosing the opposite, to have the blessing without the birthright. In Genesis 27, Isaac tells Jacob, “May God give you the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you; be ruler over your siblings, and let your mother’s children bow to you. Cursed be they who curse you, [and] blessed [be] they who bless you.”
This is a powerful blessing, wishing Jacob all the best things possible in the ancient world. Jacob is to rule over his siblings, to have responsibility for his family, but he is to take joy in it, and revel with his loved ones. Who would not be thrilled to receive such a blessing from one’s father? Yet, Jacob is so terrified of his brother after he receives this blessing that he runs from his birthright completely.
He chooses to focus solely on the good part, on the fat of the earth and the abundance of new grain, so he ignores the commitment to take responsibility for his brothers. In modern terms, he’s the relative we all know who makes jokes with everyone, but who is never quite there when we need him. The cousin who always shows up to Thanksgiving dinner, but never pitches in to help with the dishes. The “fun aunt” or uncle who takes the kids to McDonald’s, but who mysteriously disappears when it’s time to change a diaper, or take Grandpa to the doctor’s.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a good thing to enjoy our families, to schmooze, to laugh, to be a part of the joy of life. But responsibility comes along with the deal. We need the responsibility too. We need responsibility so that our family will know that we will be there when times are tough, not just when they are easy. We need it because it helps us appreciate the fun times that much more. We need it because it enables us to establish a depth of relationship that would be absent were we only to be available when times are trouble-free. We need the birthright, as well as the blessing.
The midrash, or rabbinic explanation, on the story of Jacob clarifies this perfectly. The rabbis tell us that the phrase in Isaac’s blessing “May God give you” really stands for “May God give you again and again. May God give you blessings, and [also] give you the means for holding them.” This tells us that God gives us everything again and again, is constantly renewing our blessings and our birthright. God also gives us the “means for holding them,” the capability and the knowledge to balance the two in our lives.
The midrash teaches us that these two seeming dichotomies, the birthright and the blessing, are really one and the same. Birthrights are blessings and blessings are birthrights. The obligations we accept do not have to be burdens because they contain within them hidden joys.
When I was a student chaplain in a Cincinnati hospital, I once got a 3am emergency call to the room of a woman in the neonatal unit. She had just given birth to her baby - at 24 weeks - and the child didn’t survive. I was the first person in the room after the doctor had left, and I sat with her for hours. She clutched that baby’s body the whole time I was there. I prayed with her. I held her hand. She cried. She called out to God asking why God had forsaken her. There was lots of silence.
Then came the time to take the tiny bundle away from her. I had to gently pry it from her arms. It was my job. And at that moment, it was my burden. It was, emotionally, one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. Yet as I did the very thing that was breaking her heart, I knew that my very presence, my sitting with her, my holding her hand as she cried…. all these things brought her comfort in her moment of need. The burden of birthright and the wonder of blessing. They go hand in hand.
We all have moments where our blessings and the birthrights overlap. We painstakingly pick up our preschooler to put him on time-out yet again, and he screams and kicks and shouts that he hates us; but we know that we are helping him learn to control his own behavior. We drive our best friend to AA for the umpteenth time, frustrated with him that he fell off the wagon, but feeling good that we are making a difference in his life. We tell our coworker with the skimpy outfit and the dark eyeshadow that her dress isn’t appropriate for work, and feel badly for hurting her feelings, but know that we are helping her keep her job. The responsibilities, the birthrights, are also blessings. We don’t have to choose between them, because one is already held within the other.
By the end of Jacob’s story, he’s returned home, and reunites with his brother. He dies in Egypt, surrounded and honored by all of his twelve sons. He has acknowledged his birthright and taken responsibility for everyone under his care, and found joy in his family.
This Thanksgiving, I encourage all of us to learn from Jacob’s example, to see the blessing within the birthright and the birthright within the blessing. When your mother compares you unfavorably to your brother, perhaps you’ll be willing to see it as her way of expressing concern for your well-being, and merely smile and pass her the cranberry sauce. When your 2 year-old granddaughter sizes you up and blurts out, “Grandma, you’re fat!” you can laugh, exclaim, “Yes, I am! More of me to love!” and give her a big hug. When the cousin who never volunteers to help clean up stays true to form and again doesn’t volunteer, you can ask her to join you and the rest of the clan in the kitchen, because you miss her company. And then, hand her a dish towel.
Family can be stressful, and family is often hard. But when we remember that the source of our greatest responsibility is also the source of our greatest joy, we can lean back, take a deep breath, and be grateful for what we have. And then truly, none of the mishegoss will matter.
I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving, filled with good food, good company, and lots of laughter.
 Gen. 27:28-29
 602 Soncino edition, Midrash Rabbah Genesis II