I’ve heard some unsettling real-life stories lately. These weren’t news, but family stories, in my social media inbox. One friend is wrestling with how to best cope with family members struggling with addiction. (This is, unfortunately, a common problem.) In another note, I heard of how an estate is being divided after a parent died; in this case, a sibling told his sister and her family (who stayed local to care for the parents) that she will be homeless within two months unless she can manage to get a mortgage to buy the family’s home. Another message concerns the arrival of a baby, and how scared the new mother is about being sent home early from the hospital. Finally, another friend and I shared our cultures’ rituals as we worked through a discussion about miscarriage, premature babies, infertility and pregnancy loss.
There is both love and struggling out there. These challenges are just part of dealing with our families and lives. No matter what your religion, you may encounter things like this in your life. But, while none of the stories I’ve mentioned is a “Jewish” one, neither are they not Jewish.
With these burdens in mind, I thought about the stories we hear in synagogue this time of year. This week’s parashah, Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9), offers vignettes about life. There’s Rebecca’s story about what it’s like to struggle with infertility and pregnancy difficulties. There’s sibling favouritism, as Isaac and Rebecca raise their twins, Jacob and Esau. There’s inheritance trickery when the twins struggle over their father’s blessing. Their dying father, Isaac, shows what some might call poor judgment, as he mixes up his children’s identity and offers them unequal blessings.
This section of Genesis contains a lot: wealth, poverty, lying, distrust, water rights, and discord between neighbours, intermarriage, family relationship troubles and even possibly some mental health issues. What happens to Rebecca, for instance, when Isaac dies? She needs to know that Jacob will marry someone with whom she can cope, as she mentions with the phrase, “I am disgusted with my life….” (Genesis 27:46)
When we wrestle with similar family and community relations issues in a 21st-century context, many feel isolated. Despite plentiful online information, we can feel overwhelmed and lost when life throws us big challenges.
Our tradition gives us support. When I hear the Torah read or read it on my own, I’m reminded that these stories come with centuries of commentary. When using a modern tool like sefaria.org, I can pull up the portion, but also see commentaries (in both English and Hebrew) that allow me to learn from that scholarship.
It’s true that, for some, nothing beats seeking out an elder or a rabbi who might offer in-person wisdom. For others, the struggles are deeply private. It can be good to have access to knowledge online when dealing with hard issues like addiction, infertility or other family issues. Sometimes, the backlash from older family members can be such that a young person might never again want to talk with them about it. For instance, the pressure to “start a Jewish family” or even “accept being childless” from an older family member can be anguishing.
This Torah portion is called Toldot, which translates to Generations. We’re often in a North American generational struggle, as the phrase “OK, Boomer” currently echoes around the internet. Millennials seek help, guidance and a place in society, while their elders respond with comments like the AARP’s senior vice-president Myrna Blyth, who said, “OK, Millennials, but we’re the people that actually have the money.” (Even as a Gen Xer, I’ve long known how the Millennials might feel. Yes, Boomers have the money. The rest of us, largely, don’t.)
Elders do often have the money, power and influence in society. They sometimes, like Isaac and Rebecca, make selfish or complicated decisions. So, the question is, how does Judaism and its leaders respond to younger generations who seek out help? Are we doing this on a local level to help those in need? These sound like institutional questions, and perhaps our institutions can help. Yet, the last step is a personal one. What can we do as individuals when we see someone in need of support? We can reflect on how our words, actions and contributions help others along life’s path.
I go back to what I heard about how that estate was managed after a parent died. What parent would want to turn out their child and her family from their home? What sibling declares that “it’s only fair” to insist his sister pay off the other siblings or be homeless within two months? (Especially considering this was after she did most of the daily caretaking of their parents for years.)
Of course, families are complicated and have their difficulties, but being an upstanding elder might mean thinking ahead. How does your child/executor behave? Is he or she without compassion? Good, fair estate planning should protect all your children. It should recognize and support those who took time off to care for you. That’s a sign that you’re helping all your generations along their way.
None of these are new problems, but they’re hard. Luckily, we have voices of experience, love and compassion in our tradition to help us do the right thing. It might be time to listen.
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.