Sibling rivalry, parents’ pettiness, estranged family members. It is always surprising to me when people say that they don’t find Judaism relevant to their lives. What could be more relevant?
This week in Parashat Toledot we read about Rebecca and Isaac and their sons Jacob and Esau. As you may remember, while Rebecca is pregnant, she is told that her two sons will war against each other. She prefers Jacob and helps him trick his brother and father to receive Isaac’s blessing, which was Esau’s birthright. The story is a difficult one to understand from the outside. How could parents behave this way? Why isn’t Isaac able to un-do the blessing once he knows he has been tricked? Why aren’t Jacob and Rebecca punished?
The questions actually led me to think about families and how we often look at families from the outside and judge them. On one of my favorite TV shows the male character turns to the female one and says, “Now don’t judge me” She replies, “I wouldn’t do that.” He then says, “Sure you would! That’s what we do, we judge… Some people play sports, others read… we judge!”
Our tradition teaches us, “Don’t judge a fellow human being until you have stood in his place.” Family relationships are the most complex, difficult, and long lasting relationships that we have. Each of us struggles to live up to the ideal and embrace the reality of these relationships. Yet family relationships are often more public than we would prefer. I often think that stories like these are included in the Torah so we understand that everyone’s families have difficult moments, life-altering decisions, and attempts at reconciliation. This is what being involved with someone for your entire life is all about. You need not reproach yourself for how difficult your relationships are, but rather try simply to make them a little better today than they were yesterday.