Telling Family Stories

When I was a little girl, my grandmother told me a lot of wild stories, most of them true. Most of her stories were about the family: how her grandmother MaryAnn lost her wedding ring, how they celebrated Grandpa Carroll’s 100th birthday, how her own mother, Ma Maggie, learned to make lace.

I see evidence of family story-telling in Parashat Vayetzei:

While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s flock; for she was a shepherdess. And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears. Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father. – Genesis 29: 9-12

When I read this, I can only imagine that Rebekah told her favorite child the story of meeting Abraham’s servant by the well – perhaps that very well. Laban’s men point Rachel out to Jacob, and this time he helps her water her animals, the exact reverse of the scenario with the servant and Rebekah. After he waters the animals, he kisses her, and it is clear from that moment that he intends to marry her. He is acting out the story of his parents – only this time, there is no servant go-between, and Jacob is the initiator of all the action.

There is a power to old family stories. This one sets in motion both a love affair and a tragedy. Rachel and Jacob are a love match, but because of Laban’s treachery, Rachel and her sister Leah will be set up as rivals for the rest of their lives. The rivalry will live on in their sons and their descendants, a bitter inheritance.

Eventually we wrote down the family stories, and every year we retell them. We call them “Torah” now but they are no less a family matter. We reinterpret the stories in every generation, as families do. And sometimes we find ourselves re-living parts of them both consciously and unconsciously.

What family stories do you retell to the next generation? What stories have you re-created on your own, with or without intent?


Shabbat Shalom: Toldot

This week we look at the eventful and troubling parashah Toldot, or “Generations.”

I confess I don’t have a d’var Torah to offer you this week, but I can point you to several good ones online:

Blind Love from ParshaNut, by Rabbi David Kasher

A Father’s Love by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Joy and Loss by Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman

Sowing in the Unity of Love by Ariel ben Avraham

Can I Identify with the Struggles of Others? by Isaiah Rothstein

A Last Lesson from Jacob & Joseph

"The time drew near for Jacob to die. (1984 illustration by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing)
“The Time Grew Near for Jacob to Die” – Jim Padgett

The end of the book of Genesis offers us two end of life accounts, those of Jacob and Joseph. In their deaths, they leave a legacy not only for their immediate descendants, but for all Jews.

Both are models for us in that they are clear about their wishes while they are still able to convey those wishes. Jacob calls Joseph to him, as the son with executive power, and specifies exactly what he wants long before he needs it: “Bury me with my ancestors, not in Egypt.” Joseph takes an oath to carry out that wish.

Later, when Jacob knows that he is actually near death, he calls all his sons together. First he blesses them. Then he informs them of his wish to be buried in the cave of Machpelah, this time with great specificity: “with my ancestors… in the cave in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan.” He then lists his ancestors and kin who are buried there, teaching them the mitzvah of burial in a family plot.

In his great specificity, and in choosing to speak with the brothers as a group, he is a role model for end of life instructions. Even though he had already spoken with Joseph, Jacob gave his disharmonious sons the gift of certainty about his wishes. That way, when the time came, Joseph could direct that Jacob’s body be embalmed in the Egyptian fashion for transport to Canaan. He and his brothers traveled together to the Cave of Machpelah without unnecessary arguments – they all knew exactly what their father had wanted.

Later Joseph followed his father’s example, gathering his family and blessing them with a reminder of the covenants God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He then made his own request: “Bring my bones up from this place.”  He prophesied that someday they would leave Egypt, and in fact, Moses remembered:

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had made the sons of Israel solemnly swear, saying, “God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones from here with you.” – Exodus 13:19

In our own days of advanced medical technology, there are many more things about which we should be specific with family. It is important to have the proper documents prepared: advanced health care directives, valid wills, and instructions for executors. However, those documents are limited unless we also take the time to talk about these matters with our loved ones in such a way as to minimize conflict and confusion at a difficult time.

Our ancestors Jacob and Joseph teach us the value of these conversations, a value that has only grown over time. If you have not had such conversations, if you have so far not created those documents, do not delay!

“You Intended to harm me.”

All Giza Pyramids in one shot. Русский: Все пи...
Giza Pyramids (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember the story of Joseph? He was his father’s favorite child, and annoying to boot, so much so that his brothers considered murdering him. They decided that they did not want his blood on their hands, so they sold him into slavery instead. He began his life in Egypt as a slave, but after many adventures, he rose to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man, managing the economy of Egypt during a terrible seven year famine. His brothers came to Egypt during the famine seeking food, and eventually realized that the mighty Vizier of Egypt was their brother Joseph.  He sent for their father Jacob, and the family lived under Joseph’s protection in Egypt until Jacob died.

Then, with Jacob’s death, the brothers feared that Joseph would finally feel free to “get even” with this brothers. He had the power to order them all dead.  Instead:

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50:19-21

It turned out Joseph wasn’t plotting revenge. He knew what his brothers had intended when they sold him, but he took the longer view: he saw how things actually turned out. And unlike the child he had once been, he didn’t feel the need to lord it over his brothers.

People change. They grow up. They get older. We fantasize that we know “exactly what they are going to say.” And maybe we are right. Or maybe, like Joseph’s brothers, we are expecting rage or reproach when really, all we are going to get is a hug.

Let us open ourselves to the possibility of surprise about the intentions of others, as we continue our work towards the Days of Awe.