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Toldot 5783                  November 26, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

Toldot roughly means “Generations” as in a family history. I learned this week that its first use in the Torah is in the second chapter of Genesis where it is applied to the generations of the Heavens and the Earth. Sort of a family history of the planet. Most of the time, however, it begins a genealogy of descendants of someone significant in the Torah. We get genealogies for Cain, Ishmael, Jacob, and Esau, and here, in our parsha, we have the generations of the family of Abraham. It is a rather short genealogy. Just Abraham begat Isaac and right away we are talking about the children of Isaac.

Sometimes these genealogies are important. In the rest of the Bible, they tell of generations of kings and leaders. They chronicle the history of these kings, their accomplishments, and their faults. Some say that the two books of Kings, and the two books of Chronicles are both telling the same history from two different points of view. In either telling, however, it is important to know who is related to who and what happened during their reign. These are important historical records. I am a historian, so I am always interested in the generations of our people over the centuries. I understand that some people consider this kind of history rather boring. I do have some history books that could be used as a cure for insomnia, but I deeply believe that knowing where we come from improves the way we look at our future.

We are fresh off the holiday of Thanksgiving. The ultimate family holiday on the American calendar. (My friends in Israel do not celebrate this day. I am told that the Americans in Israel invite their Israeli friends to share their turkey dinner). This holiday is all about generations. Many families have traditions related to decorations, foods to be served, in which home the holiday will be celebrated, and even which football games will be watched. This is the American day where we use our grandmother’s recipes and traditional ingredients even if there are now generic items, store brands, which may be as good or better. Several generations of family may gather in the kitchen to work together to bring a Thanksgiving meal to the table.

But there is a dark side to these family gatherings. While we all do want to be together, it comes at a price. Families are complicated social structures. We all do not agree on everything all the time. Sometimes the arguments are silly; just how much nutmeg did grandma put in her famous pumpkin pie? Sometimes the arguments can get loud and nasty. Liberals and Conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, meat eaters and vegetarians, LGBTQ and straight. Sometimes it is impossible to have everyone together. Sometimes it seems that there are family members who just can’t wait to start an argument from the moment they arrive.

Probably everyone here knows someone who is not talking to another member of their family. When the arguments get heated enough, or when someone is insulted, they walk away and never want to have contact again. I think this was the greatest fear that my own mother had, that her children would get angry with one another and stop talking. To my mother, this was the worst crime her children could commit – to separate themselves from the family. My mother drilled into us that the only solution to any problem was kindness. If we always were kind to one another, we would never have the serious arguments that can tear family apart. She also insisted that if we got mad, well, we would just have to get glad again. I like to say that it is normal and common for people to get mad at each other. It is not possible to be human and live in society and not get mad from time to time. But anger can only last 24-48 hours. After that, anger turns into a grudge, and grudges are not allowed. When we get angry, we take some time to cool off and then work to repair any damage done.

One day I met a woman who told me that she had not talked to her brother in ten years. Something had happened, she was not sure exactly what the issue was, but they had parted ways and had stopped talking. She came to me because she had just gotten a message from her brother; he had terminal cancer and had only a few months to live. He wanted to reestablish his relationship with his sister. He had asked her travel to his home so he could resolve any issues between them. She asked me, should I go? Has it been too much time that any chance of reconciliation had passed? What should she do? I told her that she should visit her brother. It may work out, it may not. But if she doesn’t try now, she will wonder for the rest of her life how it could have been different if she had tried to mend the fence. She decided to make the trip.

She was gone a long time. After about three months I finally saw her and asked her how it went. She said she went down and stayed for the three months; they had much to catch up on. She stayed until he died, and she attended his funeral. She was so happy that it all worked out but sad that her brother had died. Her only regret? That she did not reconcile with him years earlier. That they could have had so much more time if they had not both been so stubborn.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a story like this. I tell everyone who is not talking to a family member to just call and reconcile. Most of the time the original argument has long been forgotten and every single person who has reconciled with a family member, they all tell me that same regret, that they should have done this sooner.

I do know that there are toxic people in the world. I do know that there are people who are so narcissistic that they put down anyone who tries to get close. I know that there are people who will pretend to be a friend but will stab us in the back when it suits their purpose. I know that there are people who really only love money and stuff, and ridicule anyone who believes in kindness, caring and love. It is one thing to be introverted, but it is another thing to cut off all relationships and just live a life alone. Simon and Garfunkel, in their song, “I am a Rock” describe such a person:

… I've built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pains
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain
I am a rock I am an island

Human beings are social animals. We live, like many of our simian cousins, in family groups. Our brains are hardwired to be cooperative and supportive. It takes a great deal of pain for someone to walk away from others, to live by themselves and think that they can do life alone. But underneath that determination to be alone is an even deeper need to be loved. It can be hard to break through, sometimes even impossible, even for a mental health professional. But we owe it to our family to never give up. To keep ourselves open and ready for the moment, the one chance to bring our brother or sister home.

I am not looking to have all of us psychoanalyze our crazy family members. I only ask, humbly ask, that we do not respond to others with anger but with love and kindness. It may not help; others may still walk away. But we must be open always for their return. Everything will not always be better, and maybe it will be for the best to not get too close. Jacob and Esau reconcile after 21 years apart. Esau even invites his brother to come visit his home in the land of Edom. Jacob, however, as much as he loves his brother and as much as he is awed by his brother’s forgiveness for what happened so long ago, still does not go and visit his brother’s home. He does what he needs to do for his family. Jacob will only see Esau again at his father’s funeral.

I certainly hope that on Thanksgiving Day, nobody got into a new feud with a member of their family. If so, I encourage you to call them, even on Shabbat, because maintaining family ties is one of the most important things a Jew can do.

If you are now many years into a feud that has long ago been forgotten, I encourage you to find that family member, father, mother, brother, sister, child, or an old friend, call them and reconnect. Don’t give hate and anger free rent inside your head. Let the pain go.

Maybe your reaching out may make a difference and you will find yourself wishing you had done this long ago. Maybe your outreach will be rebuffed, and the other person is not ready to let go and reconcile.

Maybe you might get a call, asking you to forgive and forget. It may be hard sometimes, to forget, but it is always appropriate to forgive. When someone holds out a hand, it is always wise to take it. Let the anger go. Let the resentment go.

 Kent M. Keith wrote a famous poem called the The Paradoxical Commandments:

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

It is important not to let others tell us how to live our lives. We have to do what is right no matter what anyone else says. We have to reach out to others with kindness and concern and not let their rejection of us change the way we see the world.  When we try everything and it just does not work out, sure we have to protect ourselves and maybe separate ourselves, but no matter what, don’t hate, don’t reject, just love them anyway.

At this season of being thankful, may we be thankful for family, friends, and neighbors. And may God help us always find the good in others, as we say….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, December 11 2023 28 Kislev 5784