As we Americans prepare for our Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, family issues always come to the foreground. The Norman Rockwell paintings of happy families sitting around festive holiday tables come to mind. And for some families that is what this holiday will be about. Everyone will come together, laugh and enjoy one another’s company.
For others this is a most difficult holiday because family tensions that are put aside all year long by distance and miles must be confronted. The giving thanks for many people happen when they get back on the plane to go home.
This year we read parshat Vayeshev during Thanksgiving week. It is a story of great and difficult family tensions. This week’s portion focuses on Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is the favorite son of the favorite wife of Jacob. His father dotes on him in his grief because Joseph’s mother, Rachel has recently died in childbirth. “Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic “(Gen 37:3). Jacob clearly plays favorites. He has eleven other sons by four wives-Rachel, Leah, Billhah and Zilpah. But Joseph at seventeen years of age is given greater privilege and gifts by their father. Our torah tells us that the other sons hated their brother because of this. They resented him and they “could not speak a friendly word to him” (Gen. 37:4). Imagine sitting down at that holiday table!
Sibling rivalry and envy are a bad formula for peaceful and harmonious family ties.
And all of us who have siblings experience it at some moment in our relationships with our brothers and sisters. It is part of the growing process. But in Joseph’s case it is added to by their father and by Joseph himself. According to the rabbis Joseph took it upon himself to lord it over his older brothers as only a teenager can! And our Torah portion also tells us that Joseph had visions and dreams where his sheaf of wheat stood tall but the brothers’ sheaves bowed to his. And then a second dream where the sun, moon and stars bowed low to Joseph. Joseph had to tell them. He had to rub their faces in what would become prophecy. These of course just added fuel to an already growing flame of hatred and jealousy of his brothers.
Joseph hasn’t yet learned the skill of keeping his mouth shut. He might feel superior to his brothers and as the Torah unfolds Joseph will rise to unparalleled heights in his life over his brothers but he isn’t circumspect or respectful. At seventeen, who among us possessed those traits?
Joseph’s brothers take care of their problem by throwing him in the cistern and selling him off as a slave. They take care of a younger, bratty brother that wants to challenge the status quo and the balance of power. They rid themselves of Joseph.
So as you sit down to your Thanksgiving table with family gathered from near and far, remember the story of Joseph. Try to watch your words and be respectful with your siblings and family members. Don’t fall into the old traps of sibling rivalries and let old wounds get activated. Breathe deeply. Stay focused on the present and practice equanimity.
You might not get thrown into a pit by your siblings. But all of us can fall into traps, unintended traps of family tensions and squabbling. Instead this Thanksgiving reach down into your heart and embrace your family and friends and truly give thanks for the role they have played in your life.