The tense Thanksgiving family dinner has become a meme. Families are about feeling connected; but, as we come together, many of us revisit established relationships and memories, some of which are positive — and others less so. Emily Esfahani Smith, writing in the New York Times, explains that “during the holidays, the yearning for belonging is supercharged.”
And what better parasha could serve as an inflection point for thinking about such ideas than this week’s reading of Vayeshev? Many questions abound in the start of the story of Yosef and his brothers. The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, explains that Yaakov loved Yosef because he saw a unique spiritual dimension in him — but what was Yaakov thinking when his favoritism became obvious to the brothers? Indeed, Yaakov was criticized for doing so: Rava bar Mehasseya in Masechet Shabbat cites Rav Hama bar Gurya in the name of Rav, who says that one should never show one child preferential treatment. Thanks to the few shekels of wool that Yaakov spent on his son’s coat, the family ended up as slaves in Egypt.
But at what point can we no longer blame our parents for the divisions among us? Andrew Lloyd Webber set it to rhyme: “Joseph’s coat annoyed his brothers / but what made them mad / are the things that Joseph told them of the / dreams he’d often had.” Why did Yosef make it worse by telling the brothers of his dreams? Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar in his Or haChaim explains that perhaps Yosef wanted to show his brothers that he was divinely ordained to be their leader, or maybe he wanted to show them that they would one day need his help and they therefore should acknowledge his leadership now. Whatever Yosef’s intentions, he certainly added fuel to the fire of the brothers’ resentment.
Many of us, writes Esfahani Smith, ”have a fantasy about what family life should be at this time of year — loving, happy, accepting and warm… [which] is especially potent this year after so much time apart.” And fantasies, like dreams that we retell, don’t always hold up in the light of day. “There are so many opportunities to feel rejected during the holidays, she continues, “and every encounter can become a referendum on how loved you are (or aren’t).” This was undoubtedly how the brothers experienced the dreams and the coat.
So what is the solution? First we need to realize that sometimes what experts call a “bid for connection” can come across as negative, even when the other person is merely trying to connect with you. (Indeed, this may have been Yosef’s intention.) I learned another idea today in a post by behavioral economist Melina Palmer, who advises us not to go around and ask what we are thankful for, but rather to ask “what will I do to make others thankful?” In this way, she writes, we look to the future rather than the past and we charge ourselves to get things done.
When we gather this Thanksgiving, this Shabbat or during Chanukah next week, let’s go around and ask the question of ourselves and others — and by doing so, make a few connections and maybe even bring a little light to the world.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving!