The following is a sermon I delivered at Valley Temple on Friday evening, December 29th, 2023.
In my work with wedding couples, I’ve noticed a pattern. Over and over again, brides and grooms tell me that they have parents who are quite heavy-handed in imposing their will on the wedding-planning process, and say that it is because their own parents did the same to them back in the day. The parents remember how suffocating it was to feel the need to accept all of the requests from the older generation, but don’t seem to be willing or able to stop themselves from doing the exact same thing to their children.
We have a term for this kind of behavior: generational trauma. Sure, wedding planning might not be the exact definition of “trauma” (although that depends on YOUR wedding experience…), but the themes of hereditary struggles being passed from one generation to the next extends in all kinds of directions in our everyday lives. The children of abusive parents are statistically likely to have challenging, even dangerous relationships in their future. The children of alcoholics often either demonstrate an over-indulgence or a total abstention from drinking. Patterns of anxiety, depression, and other mental health strategies are observed within the family system, and find a way to cascade down the family tree.
For far too long, the Jewish community of the 20th century tried to pretend that we didn’t participate in many of the challenges that were so prevalent in generational trauma. “Jews don’t do that,” communities would say, turning a blind eye to the members of their community who were very much participating in the damaging behavior that was causing pain and strife. Luckily, we’ve started to confront many of these realities in our modern age, providing support and structure to those seeking help for their own personal challenges. But, as Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out in his famous quote: “we are a people in whom the past endures, in whom the present is inconceivable without moments gone by.” Generally, we think of this as a good thing. But we don’t have to go far to see the ways that our history can perpetuate even the most challenging parts of our family dynamics.
In the Torah, Jacob had his fair share of encounters with troubling family systems. His own parents played favorites, causing strife between him and his twin brother. He tried to marry a woman, only to be forced into marrying her older sister by their father. And then, if that wasn’t bad enough, Jacob so favored his son Joseph that his other children plotted to murder the “better son.” Over and over again, Jacob experiences the pitfalls that come from conflict and discord in the family. You would think he’d learn something from those experiences. Yet, on his death bed, Jacob decides to double-down on his preferential treatment.
In Genesis 49, Jacob offers his final blessing to his children, leaving a prophecy for how each of their lives and legacies will come to pass. And once again, Jacob uses his parental authority to prioritize Judah over the others, to call out his sons Simeon and Levi for their past mistakes, and to generally influence how each of the children is perceived. When he had the chance to create better legacy of support and care for his children, Jacob repeated the mistakes of his past, the mistakes of his ancestors, and continued to let the petty realities of the day get in the way of his parenting.
So often, we go to our sacred texts to try to tell us how to behave. But in Genesis, we repeatedly see our ancestors fall into the same human pitfalls that we ourselves confront. But, just like our own inclination to constantly seek improvement, we see evidence that Jacob is capable of growth, if only momentary.
When Joseph finds out that his father is going to die, he brings his sons to see their grandfather. Jacob goes to bless Menasseh and Ephraim, and in the process crosses his arms, placing his dominant right hand on the younger Ephraim. Joseph tries to correct his elderly father, but Jacob is insistent: both children are going to be blessed, and the younger is going to receive the dominant blessing. Jacob is intentionally, actively subverting the cultural expectations. But in the process, he is also righting the wrongs of the past, making sure that Manasseh is not forgot. Jacob is able to identify the role that generational trauma has played in the relationships between brothers through the ages, and is able to make an intentional, thoughtful, and meaningful choice. He makes it possible that future generations will see his growth and will know that change is possible, if only we are willing to try.
We are a reaction to our upbringing, both for the better and for the harder. Our inheritance is so often the way we see the world, which can create a chain of wisdom or a chain of trauma. But, in every generation, we have the chance to say, “ENOUGH.” We can choose not to pit our children against one another. We can choose not to impose our expectations upon the next generation. And we can be the parents who decide that our children deserve to plan their own wedding, so that we can finally break the chain that keeps uncomfortable patterns from repeating themselves.
We are a people in whom the past endures, indeed. And we are also a people who preserve our wisdom in order that we are constantly able to make a better choice, whenever we decide it is time.