April 1, 2004
The hidden benefits of Meshuggeneh relatives
The Passover seder is a wonderful chance to connect with certain relatives that you love, along with hearing again the inspiring account of moving out of enslavement and fear while moving toward freedom and compassion for all who are hungry or mistreated. But for the majority of Jewish families, it's also a stressful time when personality clashes and unresolved conflicts with a few particular relatives spring up once again.
In fact, from the research study of over 1,350 people that I did for my recent book, "When Difficult Relatives Happen To Good People," it was found that more than 70 percent of us have at least one relative who gets on our nerves year after year -- a parent, sibling, child or in-law who tends to be judgmental or asks invasive questions such as, "When are you getting married?" "Have you put on some weight?" "When are you going to have children?" or "How come your kids aren't as well-behaved as your sister's kids?"
So you might ask, "Why should this Passover be different from all other Passovers?" Will it be just another long evening of feeling irritated by your most difficult relatives, or is there some other way to handle the situation more effectively?
A Change in Perspective
One way to deal more effectively this year with your most difficult relatives is to change the way you view them. For example, here are a few hidden benefits from having meshuggeneh relatives who (like the charoset and bitter herbs we eat together in the Hillel sandwich) are a little bit nutty, somewhat sweet at times, and occasionally bitter or hard to take. Please see for yourself if the following perspectives on difficult relatives might assist you in enjoying more fully the upcoming seder.
1) Having Some Kvetches in the Family Can Remind You of What It Was Like for Our Ancestors in the Desert.
If you study the Book of Exodus, you will notice that there's a lot of complaining. Even within a few days after the miracle of the Sea of Reeds parting, many of our ancestors were complaining about the food, the weather, the lack of structure as compared to how familiar everything was during slavery and the fact that their leader, Moses, kept going off to take meetings without letting them know when he would return.
So when one or more of your relatives start complaining that the seder is too long or too short, or that the matzah balls are too hard or too soft, you can say a prayer of thanks that, "You have blessed us, Holy One, with a chance to remember that we were fearful slaves in Egypt. Please help us overcome our fears so that we no longer will be such kvetches and we will instead trust that You are guiding us in a holy direction."
2) Consider the Possibility that a Difficult Relative Is Like Sand in an Oyster.
In order to become a pearl, you might need to practice and improve your own skills at combining chesed (lovingkindness) and gevurah (limit-setting or firmness). Our Jewish teachings say it's important to stand up to people who are saying or doing hurtful things, but never to shame, attack or mistreat someone (because each human being contains a spark of holiness -- even if it's extremely covered over in your particular family member). A difficult relative is sometimes like a good workout at the gym -- you might feel the burn but hopefully you will be successful at treating your most meshuggeneh relative with a balance of kindness and firmness.
3) Having Some Disagreements at the Seder Table Can Remind Us That We Jews Are Supposed to Be "Yisrael," the Ones Who Wrestle and Strive With God.
Don't worry if your Uncle Harry is a dogmatic nudge, if your sister-in-law is a devout atheist or if your family is constantly arguing about their diverse ways of practicing (or not practicing) their Judaism. The word Yisrael literally means the people who wrestle and strive with the mysteries of the Eternal One. We argue and we discuss, therefore we exist. If we stopped arguing and discussing, we would no longer be on this chosen journey of searching for truth, fairness and the repair of the world.
4) Don't Get Bent Out of Shape If You Have Relatives Who Show Up Late, Have an Attitude or Don't Show Up at All.
If you look at one of the most fascinating passages in the seder, you will see it says there are four types of people: The one who fully partakes of the tradition; the one who questions and wonders if it applies to him or her; the one who stands off to the side; and the one who is too young or simple to ask questions.
Your task, according to the seder text and Jewish teachings, is to treat each of these four individuals with dignity and love. They each have something to teach the rest of us. They each are a part of our extended family and, possibly, are each a part of our own inner psyche.
Maybe each one of us has a part of our minds that can accept miracles and ancient teachings without question, while another part of us needs to ask difficult questions, a third part of us feels isolated or left out at times and, finally, there is a part of us that is either so very young or so extremely pure in our souls that we don't ask questions at all.
To love and appreciate each of these parts of ourselves and to treat with compassion each guest at the table is one of the great teachings of the Passover seder. Good luck!
Leonard Felder is a licensed psychologist whose eight books on how Jewish spirituality applies to daily living have sold more than 1 million copies. His most recent book is "When Difficult Relatives Happen To Good People" (Rodale, 2003). For more information, log onto www.difficultrelatives.com .