December 13, 2007
Parshat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 - 47:27)
With Chanukah recent history, I came across a fascinating review of a new book, "The Business of Holidays." The book's editor, Maud Lavin, notes that 81 percent of U.S. households celebrate Christmas with a tree in their homes, and not everybody is Christian. The line between Christmas and Chanukah has become very blurry in recent years, according to Lavin.
"I'm Jewish myself, and I didn't even know that Purim was more the gift-giving holiday on the Jewish calendar," Lavin writes. "But, Purim is in the spring, and so 'no good,' because it doesn't participate in the Christmas season, and Jewish Americans especially turned Hanukah from a tiny holiday into a big consumerist holiday."
I don't think that these comments are any longer shocking, or for that matter, revealing. Even without Lavin's book we knew this to be true. What interested me most, however, was the "Seinfeld" holiday Festivus:
"Festivus, an invention of Frank, George's father on Seinfeld, had various rituals including the family sitting around the dining room table together criticizing each other. Then Ben & Jerry's piggybacked on that and had, for a while, a Festivus ice cream. And, there really are people who continue to celebrate Festivus, especially on college campuses."
I found all of this utterly fascinating because I compared it to this week's Torah reading, which describes the amazing family reunion of Joseph with his brothers. Twenty-two years have passed since they sold him, and now Joseph finally reveals his true identity. He tells his brothers not to be sad and not to reproach themselves because God Himself had arranged the cycle of events that led to his eventually becoming viceroy of Egypt.
But this story has another side. A close examination of the biblical text reveals that the brothers' feelings were neither forgotten nor forgiven, according to British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Consider what happens while Joseph is telling the brothers not to fret over the past. They remain totally silent. Only after Joseph has spoken for 13 verses and well more than 150 words are we told: "He then kissed all his brothers and wept upon them and afterward his brothers conversed with him" (Genesis 45:15). What the brothers said is conspicuously absent. Could this be the silence of indifference?
Estrangement also appears elsewhere. For example, what relationship did Joseph establish with his father? Was there any contact during the 17 years that Jacob and Joseph lived together in Egypt? Could it be they saw each other so infrequently that not once, but twice Joseph had to be called and told that his father was on his deathbed?
"Behold -- your father is ill" (Genesis 48:1). Why did Jacob not trust Joseph when he promised that he would not bury him in Egypt? Was it really necessary to make Joseph take an oath?
What does all of this mean? Some suggest it is a realistic depiction of life. Life is such that despite the best efforts when there is a schism between family members, or for that matter between friends, the past cannot just be undone. Joseph, who left home at age 17 and rose to the top of the most powerful nation of the world, no longer speaks the same language. The innocence of youth, the closeness of father and son, the familial bond was lost forever. They had truly gone their separate ways.
Yet the Torah implies a different view of this story. True, it is hard to forget the hurt and hatred that once existed between Joseph and his brothers. But consider the length Joseph travels to reunite with them. Certainly he is hurt, yet he tries intensely to recreate the family bond. He is the one who single-handedly supports them. He doesn't mend fences by holding a Festivus celebration, where each one criticizes the other. Just imagine, if he did, what that family gathering would have sounded like!
The lesson we can learn from this story is that in families, as in friendships, no room exists for Festivus gatherings. Unfortunately, American society today thinks that such gatherings not only are productive but even necessary. We are the generation of "tell it all." But that presents a prescription for disaster. Instead of feeding criticism in our relationships, we must offer positive reinforcement with lots of love and understanding, or the relationships will fail. We can find enough criticism to go around, but can we find enough love?
So how did the Torah's tale of sibling rivalry ultimately end? This week's Haftorah from the Book of Ezekiel (37:19) captures a beautiful answer -- "the tree of Joseph ... and the tree of Judah will become one tree." That only happens when kindness rather than criticism reigns supreme.
Rabbi Elazar R. Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.