By Rabbi Sara Rich
Have you ever spent time around family members, and find yourself acting like the teenage version of yourself? Perhaps you lose your temper over an innocent question from a parent, or give a sibling a hard time over a behavior that you would never criticize in a friend? While our behaviors in these situations might surprise us, this regressing is common. According to psychologist Laurie Kramer, this phenomenon can be explained by viewing the family as a system, where each relative falls into a defined role. In a New York magazine article by Melissa Dahl entitled, “Stop Reverting to Childhood on Your Holiday Visit Home,” Kramer writes, “Families tend to have these processes that govern the way that people relate to each other… so it’s no wonder, when we get back home, that we are pulled into the way that we have always related to some of these individuals.”
We see the family systems dynamic at work through the drama of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s status as the favorite son, the other brothers wavering between responsibility and resentment, and the brothers’ shared desire to protect Jacob, all lead to incredible twists and turns in this story.
I am struck by a subtle moment in the interaction between Joseph and his brothers that exposes one such pattern of behavior. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayigash, Joseph reveals his identity to the brothers and promises to take care of them during the period of famine. He sends them back to Canaan to tell Jacob that he is alive, and that he will provide for the family. As Joseph bids them farewell, he warns, “Do not be quarrelsome on the way,” (Gen. 45:24). Joseph, who has not spent significant time with his brothers in years, predicts that the brothers are likely to fight on the way home. Surely, he is basing this assumption on behaviors that he witnessed as a boy, and that are still present in the adult versions of his brothers as they stand before him years later.
There is an effort by the rabbis in the Talmud to neutralize Joseph’s warning. In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Taanit 10b, Rabbi Elazar teaches that Joseph admonishes his brothers “Do not become occupied in a matter of halakhah (Jewish law), lest you argue on the way.” It seems this rabbi is not comfortable with the notion that the brothers might have petty arguments on the way, so he elevates the content of their potential squabble to a heated matter about the proper interpretation of Jewish law. However, Rashi, a Medieval commentator on the Torah and Talmud, is not convinced that Joseph is worried about the brothers getting carried away with scholarly debate. As one who frequently sources his commentary from the Talmud, Rashi shares Rabbi Elazar’s teaching. But, he then follows-up with what he calls the “simple explanation” of the text. He writes “Because they (the brothers) felt ashamed, Joseph feared that they might quarrel on the way about his having been sold, arguing one with another.” Rashi sees the situation through Joseph’s eyes, who knows his brothers as a group that jostles with one another and points their fingers in blame.
Dahl’s article concludes that awareness of these patterns is the first step towards making changes. Perhaps Joseph’s warning to the brothers is a helpful reminder to them of how they have acted in the past, and what behaviors they should be conscious to avoid during this stressful time. We too have an opportunity to look at our family relationships and reflect on ways that we unwillingly perform roles that no longer match who we are today. The extended time with family at home during the blizzard might have triggered some of these reactive patterns. At the same time, this hardship reminds us of the dearness of family, and calls us to avoid taking one another for granted. As the new calendar year approaches, may we strive to bring the best of ourselves to our families and all of our loved ones.
Rabbi Sara Rich is the Executive Director of Hillel of Buffalo, and a lifelong little sister.