Navigate to Belief section

Family Ties

You may be able to go home again, but do you really want to?

December 05, 2008

Now that the last remnants of turkey have been creatively recycled into sandwiches and salads and casseroles, now that Black Friday’s loot has been detagged and stored away, now that the nation’s department stores have donned their festive window dressings and its radio stations committed themselves to a strict regimen of “Jingle Bells,” it’s time to ponder the true, incontrovertible message of this and every holiday season: families suck.

Oh, come off it. Yours isn’t any better: Most likely, you too sat around the Thanksgiving table, gawking at your inane and insane relatives, shuddering as they lassoed every imaginable, potentially interesting topic of conversation into a corral of shouts and murmurs, and secretly entertained elaborate fantasies involving the electric carving knife and Uncle Seymour’s neck.

Luckily for you, the good men and women in Hollywood feel your pain. As is their custom every year, our brethren out west began this week the slow and controlled release of holiday-themed, family-centric films, which is to say films in which actors considerably more attractive than yourself deliver much wittier lines that mock, deride and otherwise torment fictitious relatives far more beastly than your folks back home.

For the past few years, the genre’s brightest star has been Vince Vaughn: In last year’s Fred Clause, Vaughn portrayed Santa’s fast-talking, nervous, intermittently boyish and bloated brother, and helped deliver that film’s message, namely that family may be an awful, oppressive proposition but it’s the only proposition we’ve got. In Four Christmases, which opened last week, Mr. Vaughn portrays Brad, a fast-talking, nervous, intermittently boyish and bloated man who learns that while family may be an awful…

Don’t blame Hollywood, though; for the origins of this deep-seated, anti-family sentiment you mustn’t look any further than the Bible, and this week’s parasha in particular. Here it is, in a nutshell: having systematically betrayed his brother and screwed him out of their father’s inheritance, Jacob, fearing Esau’s murderous wrath, skips town and decides to hang out at Uncle Laban’s in good ol’ Charan. There, Jacob falls in love with the lovely Rachel and toils for her hand in marriage for seven years, only to discover that kindly Uncle Labe pulled off that most ancient of tricks, the switcheroo, marrying Jacob to the older and less-desirable Leah instead. Still into Rachel, Jacob commits to seven more years of labor, during which his now double-daddy-in-law repeatedly tries to swindle him, before having to flee Charan with the furious Laban giving chase and marrying both of his wives’ handmaids for a total of four women and twelve children. And you thought your family was nutty.

But herein lies the tasty bit: these 12 children are the founding fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. We, then, are left with an uneasy question: What does it say about us that we’ve all emerged from history’s ultimate dysfunctional family?

Simple: It means, I think, that what the rest of the world needs reminding—often, alas, in the form of Christmas-time comedies—we Jews naturally and strongly recall, namely that as heinous and hateful as our enemies may be, it’s our kinsmen we must really watch out for.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Rashi. Interpreting this week’s parasha, the sage comes across a lovely sentiment that seems, amidst the general malarkey of the story, somewhat incredible: When he meets Jacob for the first time, Laban says to his weary nephew “indeed, you are my bone and flesh,” and puts the boy up for a full month. Why would a deceiving louse like Laban say and do such selfless things?

Rashi comes to the rescue: “In view of this,” he writes, explaining Laban’s motives and assuming his voice, “I have no reason to take you into the house, because you have nothing. Because of kinship, however, I will put up with you for a month’s time.” And even that, Rashi hastens to add, was no freebie: Jacob paid for his keep by pasturing Laban’s sheep. He might’ve gotten a better deal trying his luck with any of the Jevusites or Hittites than he did with his mother’s own brother.

But what does Jacob the Genius do? He adapts. He takes not one wife but four. And unlike his father and grandfather, he sires not two children—that, he must’ve realized, was a recipe for disaster, as had been the case with Isaac and Ishmael as well as himself and Esau—but 12. He knows that rivalries and resentments and violence are inevitable, so he creates a clan large enough to contain and sustain all the toxicities of a nuclear family. In other words, two millennia before Stephen Sondheim, Jacob grasped intuitively the same principle the celebrated maestro of musical theater would later express in “Company,” his brilliantly bitter show about relationships: It’s not talk of God and the decade ahead that allows you to get through the worst, but the neighbors you annoy together and the children you destroy together. Abraham may have been righteous, and Isaac holy, but Jacob, Jacob is our true Father, because only Jacob really understood what families are all about. Amen.

Let us not waste any time, then; somebody print out this week’s parasha and fax it over to whoever it is in Hollywood who’s in charge of greenlighting holiday fare. Vaughn, have we got a role for you.