Toldot - Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben

Family and Selfhood

November 10, 2007

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation
Past President, Board of Rabbis of Southern California

I spend a lot of my time as a rabbi helping others cope with death and dying, grief and loss. I know both from my work and my personal life experience that the death of a close family member just isn't something that you really ever "get over." You move on, you learn to put the raw emotions and unanswered questions in a place somewhere inside where they can be held at a distance and examined with enough detachment to feel almost like someone else's problem.

And yet one of the most universal truths about death and grief is that even death can carry its own blessings. On the one hand I know that my own childhood loss gets reactivated each and every time I sit with someone else's child who is grieving for a dying parent or sibling or friend. On the other hand, I know that it makes me a much more sensitive, empathetic and effective human being and rabbi because of it.

Childhood traumas last a lifetime, it's true. But so can childhood successes and blessings. It's easy to focus on the dramatic traumas of life, because they evoke sympathy from those around us and give our lives a vague heroic quality to them. But true maturity and growth in life is the ability to accept total responsibility for the quality of our lives regardless of the circumstances we encounter along the way, whether good and bad. I believe that we know we have reached maturity when we can say "Who I am is up to me, and me alone. And every single day of my life it is truly in my power to choose the life I lead, the person I am, the quality of my relationships and the attitude with which I create the world in which I live."

I know first hand from my own life experiences that our lives are what we make of them. Blessings abound in life if we are open to experiencing the miracle of our own possibilities each year. We become what we think about, who we choose to become by the choices we make each day we live.

This week's Torah portion is called "Toldot," "Generations," and it chronicles the history of our Patriarch Isaac and the generations that he and his wife Rebecca created through the birth of their twin sons Jacob and Esau. The story that unfolds is a dramatic, unsettling tale of family disharmony and sibling rivalry that results in Esau selling his birthright to Jacob who then turns around and steals the blessings that his blind father thought he was bestowing upon Esau on his deathbed.

We learn of the destructive power of parental favoritism that pits one son against the other. In the end we are not at all surprised when the fruit that this horrendous parenting model yields is the bitterness in Rebekah's mouth as she is forced to send her favorite son, Jacob fleeing into the night for fear that his more powerful brother Esau will kill him in an act of personal revenge for his treachery.

Each year I can't help but read this story and shake my head at the lost opportunities for family love, affection, and togetherness that were thrown away by the Biblical characters. How could they not see how precious their time with each other was? How could they not appreciate that every day with family, every day you are privileged to share with your father and your mother, your brother or your sister is a sacred gift, not to be squandered or bartered away or discarded as trivial.

How often I sit with families in counseling and am struck by how much time they waste on silly arguments and foolish disagreements over nothing. So many times when I have watched families as they bicker and fight with each other, what I most wanted to tell them was, "Stop! Look at each other. Recognize the blessing that you are in each other's lives. Embrace each other, kiss each other, be profoundly grateful for every single moment, every single breath that you share - for time stops for no one, life is achingly brief, and our loved ones inevitably slip away from our lives."

So as you sit at your family table this Thanksgiving, pause just enough to look deeply into each other's eyes, give each other a hug and a kiss and then thank God out loud for every single person whose life has been given to you as a precious blessing this year. If Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Rebecca had done the same, perhaps the entire course of Jewish history would have changed for the better.