Tuesday, December 15, 2009

No Family is Perfect

During this time of year, we wish to be near our families and share the warmth of holidays with them. We may also have mixed emotions and can encounter difficulties in being with our loved ones. No family is perfect, and often we deal with family issues during this holiday season. In Hebrew we call family mishpecha, or in Yiddish, mishpocha. Judaism offers a number of helpful ideas for dealing with mishpecha during the holidays.

Judaism teaches us that no family structure is perfect. We tend to idealize the nuclear family, believing that the perfect family gathering occurs when grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins gather together for a meal and celebration. While this vision of family life is beautiful, it is rare.

Today, many families are simply not structured in this traditional way. We have blended families from multiple marriages. Boyfriends and girlfriends of every age from teenagers to seniors join at the holiday table. In the Bible it says that we are to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. By this same principal, our task is to welcome everyone to our holiday tables with kindness.

The Bible is filled with many examples of unique family structures. Jacob had four wives, 12 sons and 1 daughter, making for a very complex family life. Naomi from the book of Ruth had a very difficult family life as well. She lost her husband and two sons. Her daughter in law Ruth stays with Naomi and Ruth even converts to Judaism, saying: “Wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”

The measure of a family is not how closely it matches the traditional structure, but rather the warmth, love and support shared by its members. It is probably no accident then that Kind David descended from the loving family of Ruth and Naomi.

Just as no family structure is perfect, individual family members are not perfect either. It is easy judge our relatives by high standards. Yet Judaism teaches us that benefit in trying to accept our family members despite their flaws.

Beginning with Cain killing his brother Abel, one family member after another in the Torah argues, does not get along and occasionally disowns one another. In many cases, we can learn from the families in the Torah exactly what not to do to promote family unity. A hint: almost sacrificing your child, as Abraham did with Isaac, probably does not engender good family dynamics. All of these stories of difficult family dynamics from the Torah are perhaps meant to teach us that grandparents, parents and siblings are imperfect.

One way to help us accept the imperfections of family members is to look at the core of the relationship which is love. Remembering the love shared between siblings or parents and children can go a long way towards overcoming family issues.

We can all come up with a laundry list of ways that our family members caused us harm. Perhaps we will use the holidays as an excuse to bring up old grievances, or punish family members for past mistakes. Yet if we can try to remember that our family members do love us, we might find ourselves relating to them with kindness and compassion. There are families out there where there is a lack of love, and if we are fortunate to have love in our family, this is reason to be grateful.

In Jewish tradition, one of the guiding values for family life is shalom bayit, which means peace in the home. As the holiday season continues, we benefit from striving for shalom bayit and creating an atmosphere of peace, acceptance and tolerance in our homes.

Judaism does not counsel us to forgive and forget, or to pretend that difficulties in relationships do not exist. However, if we recall the love at the center of our family relationships and seek to let go of some of the difficulties of the past, we can make theses holidays into a warm and joyous time, even if they are a bit exhausting.

1 comment:

Josh said...

Very nice. Thank you.