We’re not perfect. Yes, and you’re saying, so, why is this in the newspaper? I’m writing this over winter break. Like many families, we chose a staycation. We’ve done some walks and games outside, and a lot of time just hibernating, resting and rejuvenating indoors. All the Chanukah treats were investments in this: new toys that our twins could play with for hours, books, warm socks – and a huge gift for all of us: my husband chose to repaint our main bathroom as part of his time off.
I know, you’re still thinking, why is this in the Jewish newspaper?
Well, first, if you’re a Jewish family who celebrates only Chanukah, winter break gets long. It’s a time when the radio and TV are full of someone else’s holiday celebrations. In a cone of silence, my family has always turned inwards, to hang out together. My parents used to joke it was the time of year for wallpapering. (My mom would choose the paper and my dad would hang it and curse about wallpaper!)
Aside from a much-improved colour and some very important anti-moisture paint, the bathroom fix-up also gives us a chance to seek comfort and self-improvement from within, by focusing solely on our household. I think my husband gets a great sense of satisfaction when he finishes a home repair project and feels it is a “job well done.” He dwells endlessly on the parts that aren’t perfect, and what might be better.
This is connected to the Torah portion Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) for a few reasons. This portion is very much about family, connections, our blessings and our imperfections. Joseph’s father, Jacob, is dying. Jacob’s dying blessings and wishes are both comforting to some and very uncomfortable for others. His need to include Ephraim and Menashe (his grandchildren) and to offer blessings out of birth order strike many as unfair. The rabbis discuss why Jacob crossed his arms and preferred the younger over the older grandchild. One wonders why he includes the children of his favourite child at all.
Yet, if you think back, Jacob has never been particularly even-handed with his kids. This is the dad that made Joseph the multicoloured coat. Joseph is the child of his old age. Jacob is unfair. He plays favourites, and this rubs us wrong as modern parents or family members. Dads shouldn’t play favourites, right?
When you read Jacob’s predictions (or blessings) for each of his children, some of them sound generous, and others are really harsh. It’s hard to imagine how this experience would feel from a modern perspective, it’s so out of whack with how we see modern family relationships. True, his sons have not been consistently upright people. However, at least Jacob mentions them. He doesn’t even acknowledge Dina – his daughter doesn’t exist here.
This story remains something I dwell upon because my twins’ Hebrew names, in part, are Ephraim and Menashe. Their dad’s Hebrew name is Yoseph (Joseph). Their grandfather’s name? Ya’akov (Jacob). You get the picture. Whenever we bless our kids on Friday nights, we say, in Hebrew, “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe.” Then we translate the prayer into English. We say, “May you be like …” and we use their English names. May they be like (true to) themselves.
When we reflect on it, we can see that, even among our patriarchs, like Jacob, we have imperfect role models. Jacob stole his twin brother’s birthright. He wrestled with the Divine. He played favourites with his children in harmful ways. He was by no means a perfect person. In a sense, this is comforting. No matter how crummy our mistakes or imperfect our efforts, we know that many biblical role models also weren’t perfect. Perfection may be overrated.
Our best hope is that we be true to ourselves – continually striving to seek peace and justice and pursue it, in a flawed world. We can commit to doing our best, within our own particular skill sets, to making things better.
As we start a new secular year, 2020, and decade, we have so many opportunities to reflect on what’s not right about the world. Yet, we can also gain comfort from the knowledge that imperfect people (and paint jobs!) can still make a positive difference for a long time to come.
Here’s to a better world in 2020 – imperfections, warts and all.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.