Last night, I was sitting at home with my husband, who was emailing a friend. As he was about to hit “send” I interrupted and joked, “You should sign it, ‘Happy Festivus!’” We burst out laughing, and moments later, we were watching the classic Seinfeld episode. While it originally aired in 1997, the themes it touches upon – family, the American holiday season, and the struggle of being different – are just as compelling today as they were over twenty years ago.
The episode’s description of Festivus touches upon every major struggle that a person can have with holidays and family. George is embarrassed about his parents’ idiosyncrasies and eager to conform to the Christmas tradition he encounters in his workplace. Yet ultimately, he’s unable to buy into a tradition that isn’t his – especially the parts he finds objectionable – and decides to own the fact that he is different, that his family is different. As his parents welcome George and his friends into the family home, the gathering starts with light warmth, yet soon turns dark. The first Festivus ritual is the Airing of Grievances – in which family members take turns ranting about all the problems they have with everyone else in the family – and as this ritual begins, one of the guests takes a flask out of his pocket and starts drinking. The comedy is masterful, as it hits notes that are all too relatable. In our own ways, we’ve all lived parts of this story before!
At this time of year in American culture, and at this time of year in our Torah reading, family is a central theme. Schools go on break and [all-but-retail] business slows down, leaving parents and children with more time than usual to spend together, inviting travel for family vacations and visits. And in this week’s parasha, Jacob blesses his sons as his own life comes to an end, leaving the twelve brothers to figure out how to relate to one another without the patriarch who united them. In our parasha, old grievances resurface as Joseph’s brothers wonder whether or not Joseph will continue to trust and support them. And in our own families, as we take time away from our usual routines, we have the opportunity to engage in meaningful connection – and we also have opportunity to keep re-fighting all the fights we’ve ever fought. How can we make the most of our time together? Or, alternatively, how can we coexist without reliving the past and staying stuck in our conflicts? Our parasha gives us a powerful teaching to speak to these questions.
First, in the conflict between Joseph and his brothers, the brothers find a way to apologize. They send a message to Joseph, saying that their father Jacob would have wanted Joseph to forgive, and that Jacob in fact asked Joseph to forgive. They follow up this introduction by showing up, coming before Joseph personally and acknowledging they were in the wrong. The brothers don’t offer a perfect apology. But they do offer a wholehearted one.
Second, Joseph forgives. Joseph reassures them, speaking to them in a way they can hear. Joseph acknowledges his brothers’ intent to harm, and affirms that God’s will transformed this harm into survival and even prosperity. Joseph promises to continue to share this God-provided prosperity with his brothers and their families, stating and re-stating that they have nothing to fear.
Is it really that simple, that apology and forgiveness – the time-tested process of t’shuvah – can sustain us through this celebratory and challenging time of year? Almost. This conversation between Joseph and his brothers could have happened years ago – and perhaps they did indeed have elements of this conversation before. But for such a serious violation of trust, they needed to have this conversation again, at this particular point in time, at this particular moment of transition in their family.
As we move through this American holiday season, may we be open to apology and forgiveness – and may we be open to these conversations unfolding on God’s timeline, rather than on ours. May our patience and openheartedness inspire us to speak in a way that our families can hear. And may we, like George celebrating Festivus, find ways to embrace our families’ differences, and our families’ uniquenesses.