My kids have developed a fascination with the PBS TV show This Old House. They love watching how old houses are fixed, restored and cared for by these talented workmen. I have always liked this show, too, and, as it goes, this is a pretty safe way to share “adult” TV programming with 7-year-olds.
Over Thanksgiving, one of my boys decided that we should all sit on the couch. Mommy would help one boy with his knitting and the other with his crochet and we would watch this show. Well? It would be a great weekend. (This kid also suggested we eat potatoes, noodles and rice for dinner, thus creating the ultimate “couch potato” scenario!)
While this may just be a funny episode in our family life, it’s a good reminder that we’re all quirky folk. My family might be different but, in reading the weekly Torah portions from Simchat Torah onwards in Genesis, we learn that, historically, the Jewish people originate from interesting stock. So, if we look to our ancestors (way, way back) to inform our understanding of ourselves, that might be a good thing.
There’s plenty of negativity in Genesis (Bereishit) in terms of how people behave towards one another. It’s a reminder, without giving a list of every kind of licentious or bad behaviour, that we have the capacity to do each other great harm. There are murders and sexual assaults. There are also people held up as role models, despite their flaws.
There are Abraham and Sarah, who welcome in guests, make them bread and offer them hospitality, and then Sarah demonstrates that having a sense of humour goes a long way. When told she would give birth to Isaac as an old woman, she laughs. This was a great response in many ways – she has a healthy sense of both humour and skepticism about the world.
There’s Rebecca, who offers (more) hospitality to Abraham’s servant. Isaac is so respectful of his father that he follows him up Mount Moriah to do a sacrifice – even when it seems clear that he will be killed.
Genesis offers one story after another. Each one deserves examination. However, when doing a quick reading through several of these episodes, I saw how different the characters are from one another. Some individuals struggle with what they learn from G-d, and some are believers. Others, like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, are deemed irretrievably flawed, but Lot’s wife, who is initially saved, is too curious or doubtful, and turns to salt anyway.
I pondered some of this as we watched the guys from This Old House go to Texas to help after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. We described the terrible flooding from hurricanes and boat rescues to our kids in ways they would understand, so we talked about Noah and the ark. On another episode, we learned that one of the young apprentices on the show had passed away in his sleep, from a longtime medical condition. He was age 18. So we paused the TV show. We talked about how he worked hard and did a good job, and his family and the people he worked with – all loved him. That his death was a shock and very sad, but that we believe, as Jewish people, that when a person’s body is buried, his soul goes up to be with G-d.
There is no perfect way to talk about life-threatening storms or untimely death. Though we try to shield our kids from the hardest things in the news, truth be told, the gentle teaching of the craftsmen and parents on This Old House was just right for my kids to understand. Between very basic Torah stories and real-life events, we had a lot of help in talking about these hard issues.
Even as an adult, sorting through the stories in Genesis seems daunting, just as coping with the news has been. My husband and I have both lived in places where we’ve experienced tornadoes and hurricanes. I wish I could spare others the experience of waiting in the cellar until the storm passes. However, I’ve been struck by the commonalities I’ve seen between our weekly Torah portions and these challenges.
- It’s important, when facing adversity, to offer generous hospitality and kindness to those around you.
- It’s good to give respect to your elders and those who might be able to lead you through hard experiences.
- Being a resourceful “maker,” someone who builds or creates what he or she needs during an emergency, can save a life or bring forth life.
- A sense of humour can help us through really difficult challenges.
People who suffer through losing everything during life-threatening situations like hurricanes and tornadoes are just like everyone else. They’re individuals, who may be quirky or kind, who do good and bad things. It can be hard to relate to their situation and remember that beyond all our differences and preferences, they are just like you and me.
We read Genesis every year at synagogue. We revisit these ancestors and remember how they persevered through difficult experiences. It’s a chance to imagine yourself not just as Abraham or Isaac, but as Hagar, abandoned with an infant, or Keturah, a second wife. We can be Noah’s family in the flood, just as many hurricane survivors might have felt.
Religious traditions interpret these biblical stories in different ways, but in watching This Old House, we see people rebuild homes after a hurricane, and how they offer each other food, water, tools and other necessities. This reminds me that some lessons are the same for everybody. Hospitality, kindness, respect, resourcefulness and a good sense of humour – whether you learn them from Genesis or from fix-it shows on TV, they help bring us together in positive ways.
Joanne Seiff writes 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. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.