Guest Columnist: A family fight

There is no fight as bitter and harmful as a family fight. The very closeness of the relationship intensifies feelings of hurt, deep insult.

November 26, 2010 15:15
3 minute read.
THE SZPIGIELMANS get ready for the big move.

French family 58. (photo credit: Alain Azria)


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There is no fight quite so bitter and harmful as a family fight. The very closeness of the relationship intensifies the feelings of personal hurt and deep insult. Closeness always emphasizes the differences that exist and clouds over the basic agreements and shared values and worldview.

The history of the past century has shown that the divisions in the Jewish religious world are seemingly unbridgeable, even though the differing sides agree on the basic principles of faith and moral behavior. They disagree on clothing, customs, political matters and how to share the pie of jobs, welfare and governmental and private largesse.

The Bolshevik communist government of the Soviet Union hated and persecuted the Menshevik communists, socialists, Trotskyites and other assorted Marxists to a greater degree than even their capitalist foes. It was a family fight, and family fights become violent, illogical and very long lasting.

Great institutions of Jewish learning have been broken up by internal disagreements as to the minute methodologies of study, the rights of succession and differences of personality. Rarely do these disputes involve true ideological differences; they almost always descend into personal feuds that are eventually intractable.

From my long experience in the rabbinate, I can unequivocally state that the bitterest disputes I was witness to and attempted unsuccessfully to solve were between members of the same family, usually but not always over inheritance rights and other family matters that to the outside observer seemed relatively petty and unimportant. This is certainly an example of the sometimes perverse side of human nature.

Our rabbis have often taught us that the bitter internal disputes that have plagued Jewish history and are all too present in our current society can all be traced to the genetic imprint created within us by the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is insensitive to the feelings of his brothers, suspects them of deeds that they have never committed and slanders them to their father.

They, in turn, see in this young teenage brother an existential threat to their very existence and to the ability of the house of Jacob to survive and prosper. Out of these misunderstandings personal enmities develop. The 10 brothers cannot speak peacefully or civilly to Joseph, so deep is their antagonism toward him.

They hardened their hearts and stopped up their ears when he wept and pleaded with them when he was in the pit of snakes and scorpions and then finally sold as a slave into Egypt. This also allows them to fool their elderly father and to witness his grief without revealing to him their culpability in the disappearance of Joseph.

Wrongdoing always leads to further wrongdoings, and a lie must inevitably lead to a cover-up of further lies. And all this because of a family fight over misinterpretations and erroneous assumptions of the motives and behavior of others.

Eventually it will take years and very changed external circumstances to reconcile Joseph and his brothers and make the house of Jacob whole again. Common existential dangers, the enemy from outside, usually have a sobering effect upon simmering internal disputes.

Only diehard ideologues continue to whistle past the graveyard, oblivious to the real dangers that confront us.

I remember that once I witnessed a traffic policeman in Jerusalem writing out a summons to someone who had allegedly illegally parked near a synagogue. Their argument grew heated, and I was afraid that they would come to blows. Suddenly someone emerged from the synagogue and shouted to them, “We need two more Jews to complete our minyan!” The policeman and the car owner dutifully trudged into the synagogue.

After the service concluded, they immediately resumed their heated discussion as to whether the person’s car was wrongfully parked. The external emergency had ended, and now they could return to their own disputation once more.

To a certain extent, that vignette is a microcosm of Jewish social and political life today. It seems that we need a discernible external and immediate threat to allow us to forgo our internal squabbles, at least temporarily. Let us hope that we will find a wiser and better way to deal with our family fights.

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