The Possibility of Good Choices

December 23rd: Vayeshev
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

I’ve always been intrigued by the way people use the term Caveat Emptor, Let the Buyer Beware. Properly used, it is a warning to buyers to be careful. Not all sellers are honest, and, once a transaction is completed, one may have no recourse. It can also be used as an explanation. “Caveat emptor: you should have been more careful before buying that.” However, it should never be seen as a justification or moral defense for cheating or dissembling. It is not morally defensible to say, “According to the principle of caveat emptor, it is permitted for me to be dishonest.” Cheating or lying or any kind of dishonesty is wrong, and the fact that, caveat emptor, some people are unscrupulous does not make bad behavior okay.

I think we can take a similar approach to family dysfunction.

Family dysfunction is present, more or less, in pretty much every family—in every familial emotional process, and the dysfunction in which we might have been raised can often explain some of our quirks and bad habits. Given the emotional milieu of our lives, we often tend to behave in certain ways. However, family dysfunction should never be a justification or moral defense for bad behavior. We always have the option to choose better behavior.

A number of examples can be found in our ancient family—particularly in the parshiyot we’re reading at this time of year. Though the families of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs sometimes display significant dysfunction, many of our ancient forebears nonetheless manage to see their way clear to act decently.

We can only guess at the residual effects on Isaac of almost being slaughtered by his father, but the Torah does explain that he favors one of his twin sons, Esau, while Rebekah favors Jacob. Favoring one child over the other is a problem—a sure sign of family dysfunction, but Isaac and Rebekah might improve in their parenting as the years go by. This seems to be the view of some readers who look at the story of the “Stolen Blessing” in a different way. This reading starts with the un-believability of the story. Is Isaac really fooled by Jacob’s disguise? He recognizes Jacob’s voice, and there’s no way that Esau could be as hairy as a goat. Could it be that, after whatever favoring they did in the boys’ early years, Isaac and Rebekah now realize that each young man is suited for a path uniquely suited to his personality and strengths? We know that Esau and Jacob are vastly different. Could the story of the “Stolen Blessing” really be the story of how Isaac has two innermost blessings, one for each of his sons? Jacob receives the blessing of religious leadership, while Esau’s great strength and ability make him suitable for a different kind of leadership and wealth. Perhaps the initial favoring by each parent of a different child develops into an awareness of each child’s potential, and both Isaac and Rebekah end up guiding each of their beloved sons toward his best path.

In the case of Jacob—whose conniving nature begins in his mother’s womb, he appears to think that he can “fast talk” his way through all kinds of situations and control them. He even tries to finagle God. After God appears to him in a vision (The Ladder to Heaven) that would completely win over any other human being, Jacob’s reply is: “IF God remains with me, IF He protects me on this journey that I am making, IF He gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and IF I return safe to my father’s house, THEN the Lord shall be my God.” (Genesis 28.20-21) It takes a while and a lot of maturity, but Jacob eventually learns not to over-function in his relationships. In this week’s portion, after Joseph manages to insult everyone in the family, Jacob does not try to interfere in his grown children’s relationships. In Genesis 37.11, we read about how Joseph’s brothers were “wrought up with him, but Jacob kept the matter in mind.”  He is certainly part of the problem: in his grief at Rachel’s death, he favors her son, Joseph, over the all the other sons and makes him an ornamented tunic (or a Coat of Many Colors). However, the boys are now all grown, and only they can manage their own relationships. While some consider Jacob’s inaction paralysis, others see it as wisdom: one cannot fix other people.

In Joseph’s case, the special love his father shows him is certainly a kind of family dysfunction, but his obnoxious behavior in re his dreams is his own mishegaas. Is the ability his, or is it a gift from God? As a conceited youth, he mistakenly thinks that it is his, and he lords it over his brothers like a bludgeon. Notice the brother’s reaction to his dreams. It is not just the dreams that insult them: “they hated him for the dreams AND for him telling/bragging about them.” (Genesis 37.8) Of course, eventually Joseph learns some humility and some appreciation. When he is in the prison and Pharaoh’s Cup Bearer and Pharaoh’s Baker have no one to interpret their dreams, Joseph does not brag about his abilities. “Surely God can interpret! Tell me your dreams.” (Genesis 40.8) He prayerfully offers to be the conduit for God’s messages.

There are more examples in this week’s portion, but let us conclude with Reuben’s attempt to save Joseph’s life. When Joseph approaches his brothers in Dothan (Genesis 37.18ff), there is a discussion among the brothers as to how best to “teach Joseph a lesson.” Some want to kill him. “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and….see what becomes of his dreams!” But, Reuben realizes that this is terrible, and he tries to calm everyone down. “Let us not take his life. Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves.” Reuben’s idea is to give the brothers their moment of revenge but to go back later and rescue Joseph. In the midst of this very heated situation—genuine family dysfunction (!), Reuben controls his own outrage at Joseph’s obnoxious attitude and works for some decency. It is their bad luck (or God’s providence) that some Midianite traders pass by and kidnap Joseph before Reuben can get back to him. “When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes. Returning to his brothers, he said, ‘The boy is gone! Now, what am I to do?’”

Most people wrestle with family baggage and learned emotional responses that can exacerbate problems and damage relationships. It is part of the human phenomenon. Sometimes, we can look back at our choices and feelings and realize how they came to be. Sometimes we can even extend understanding to others who continue problematic patterns and continue the damage of the generations. However, past dysfunction does not dictate future dysfunction. We have choices as to how we respond and how we behave. We have urges and impulses we can resist. We have wisdom and understanding we can muster. We also have a treasure trove of guidance in the form of our Torah and Jewish Traditions and examples of menschlichkeit. We can outgrow our own worst inclinations. We can make good choices. May we search for the goodness within and bring it forth to shine in the world.