Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Toldot (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at November 2005, 2006, 2007, December 2008 and November 2009.

A Dysfunctional Family

The family, as we have noted earlier in this series, is the smallest and most fundamental unit of community, the basic building-block of society. In traditional societies, such as those of our ancestors in antiquity or the medieval world, or of our Palestinian cousins, where extended families and clans are de rigueur, it is often difficult to tell the difference between the two: there is the nuclear family; there is the extended circle of married brothers and of grandparents who may live in greater or lesser proximity; there is the clan, which may include the entire population of a village or small town; and there is the tribe. In any event, for may the idea of family is synonymous with cooperation, caring, the circle of mutual responsibility and support., “the place where they have to take you in.” In America, social conservatives often evoke “family values” in contradistinction to the alienation, supposed hedonism and rampant competition of modern urban society. Within the Jewish framework, traditionalists evoke the old-fashioned Jewish family, complete with chicken soup and kugel, as an unparalleled model of warmth and love. The term “brotherhood” is a common metaphor for unqualified friendship and concern without ulterior motif: “How goodly and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together” (Ps 133:1).

But, as almost everyone knows for everyday experience, there is often great disparity between the ideal and reality. Families are often marred by strife and dissension, by sibling rivalry and hatred. For many, holiday gatherings such as the Passover Seder or Rosh Hashanah dinner may be dreaded as times when covert tensions and animosities come to the surface; there are cases, in even the best of families, where children are so divided that, when an old parent dies, they cannot even sit shivah together!

Family and its tensions is a central subject of this parashah, as it is of the rest of Sefer Bereshit: the deceit and murderous hatred between Jacob and Esau, the feminine rivalry between Leah and Rachel, the saga of Joseph and his brothers—all these illustrate in striking colors the less than ideal functioning of the archetypal Biblical family.

All this is captured in concise but powerful images in the first dozen or so verses of this parashah (Gen 25:19-34). It begins with the two infants struggling in the womb, and their mother seeking out an oracle, who tells her that they will constantly struggle, both on the personal level and, in later generations, on the historical-national level. It continues with the twins’ birth (itself marked by violence, Jacob seizing the ankle of his firstborn brother) and, in verse 27, once they are grown, in a succinct description of their differing characters: “Now Esau was a man who knew the hunt, a man of the fields; and Jacob was an innocent/simple man, dwelling in tents.” (At this point one must interject: if one brackets the midrashic view, this not a simple contrast between white and black, good and evil. There is much to praise in Esau’s love of the outdoors, of the open spaces of the field: “See the fragrance of my son, like the fragrance of the field that God has blessed”—27:27. The original Zionist dream was of a return to nature, of a return to the soil, to a more “Esavian” existence, as against the excessively bookish, indoorish, inactive life of the traditional Jewish ideal. Even S. R. Hirsch has suggested that the traditional view did a disservice to Esau.) Finally, we are told that each of the parents had their own favorite between the two sons—a source of never-ending trouble within families. Something similar happens with Jacob and Joseph, the blatant favoritism of the former setting off the murderous resentment of the brothers—albeit without the factor of father and mother each favoring a different child.

At the center of the parashah lie key incidents which, at least on the surface, appear as acts of deceit, of manipulation, of taking unfair advantage of another’s weakness: in the case of Esau’s selling his birthright for a “mess of pottage,” taking advantage of the latter’s ravenous hunger (doubtless exaggerated) upon returning from the hunt; in the case of Isaac giving Jacob the much-coveted deathbed blessing, mother and son aligning themselves to exploit the blindness of an old man who does not fully know what is going on. Again: many traditional commentators see all this as necessary to realize Yaakov’s destiny as the rightful bearer of the covenant with God, and even as acting out Divine providence.

Be that as it may, the question that interests me here is: What are we to make of these divided family situations? What causes it and what, if anything, are we to learn from them about our own family conflicts?

Basically, we might say, such is human nature. If human beings were like angels, without ego, without ambition, without the desire for power and importance, all this would not happen. Some mystical paths, including much of Hasidic thought, propound the idea of negation of the self (bittul atzmi), of a kind of mystical submission to God, as a way of transcending all such worldly attachments with the inevitable conflicts that come in their wake. But in real life, with real human beings, this is all but impossible. Even the holiest of people have an ego—even, a cynic might say, if it expresses itself in the desire for exemplary holiness, purity, and modesty. The halakhic mainstream within Judaism accepts this, and attempts to train people to tame the beast, to place limits and constraints on excessive ego, and teaches honest and just means on achieving one’s ends. But it ultimately accepts the reality of human nature, and that even within the family there is no absolute moratorium on the striving to be first.

Two Afterthoughts about Shlomo

Two more thoughts about Reb Shlomo Carlebach. First, in describing his attempts to create a community that would somehow realize his vision, I saw both Shlomo and his followers in terms of the alienation of the 1960’s, and the “youth culture” of those days as an attempt to somehow create a vehicle that gave both freedom to radical individualism while building a community.

Last Motza’ei Shabbat, at the concert in Shlomo’s memory (as announced here), “forty years later,” what struck me more than anything—seeing some of the “khevre” (among them several good musicians, standing on the stage with long white Hasidic-style beards and belting out a song with tremendous power)—is how many of these former ‘60s Hippies have raised Jewish families, are now grandparents, and that there is a second generation of “Shlomo-khevre” who are themselves raising Jewish children in his spirit. It seems to me that this an impressive accomplishment. Secondly, I have noted before the melancholy undertone in many of his songs; not withstanding the fast beat of some of them and the “Hasidic joy” expressed in a modern musical idiom, I felt an underlying sadness—both in much of the music, and in Shlomo himself. (I heard him say, on more than one occasion, that he saw himself as the loneliness man in the world.)

I used to think that this sadness had its root in his personal life—in whatever happened in his childhood; in his decision to break with the Haredi word in which he grew up and his rejection by many of his friends and mentors from that world; In whatever it was that made it so difficult for him to find a soul-mate; in his late marriage (when his twin brother was already a grandfather!) and in the ups-and-downs of his married life; etc.

But it now seems to me that a large part of his melancholy comes from the Holocaust. He and his immediate family got out of Europe in the nick of time, in ’38 or ’39, but much of his large extended family—and one must remember that his father was the youngest of twelve siblings, many of whom were prominent rabbis throughout Central Europe—were killed by the Nazis. His uncle, Rabbi Joseph Carlebach of Hamburg, was among those killed in the Holocaust, and there were doubtless many others whose names I do not know. Add to that his empathy and identification with the Jewish people, and the fact that he was among the generation that lived through the Holocaust, must have left an indelible impression on all that he did and felt later. For those of us born later, the Holocaust, however strongly it may be felt, cannot but be something very different—something learned, something adopted into our consciousness, and not an immediate trauma as it was for Shlomo’s generation.


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