I was on vacation with my family for 10 days, together, 12 of us, in one house with one virus we all shared. Like dominoes, one by one, each of us developed a cough, a fever, aches, pressure in the sinuses…and lousy moods. Innocent questions of ‘how did you sleep’ were often met with variations of responses from ‘how do you think I slept’, to ‘what did you mean by that’.
We struggled to understand why medicines we can get on the shelf at home were only available by prescription where we were. In moments of respite, we played games together in one room until someone started to cough at which point we all pulled our shirts over our mouths and noses. People were sent into their rooms for the duration as others dreamed of bathing in hand sanitizer.
In the midst of the roller coaster of vacation get-away and sickness overload, I heard someone ask a sibling why they were moody. The question was posed as: isn’t blood thicker than water? And because we were all stuck in a house together and had already talked about anything interesting, and because…we are who we are… we argued about whether or not that phrase makes any sense.
If it’s a declaration of fact, then of course blood is thicker than water…big deal! (Amazing how being sick robs you of any sense of nuance or compassion). But the phrase is used to indicate that family is more important than other things. How do blood and water mean that? We all agreed that ‘blood’ is family, but then how does ‘water’ mean everything else?
In my family there are history buffs and the historic phrase ‘the blood of the covenant is thicker than water’ was volunteered as a source. Pooling the information people had, as well as a quick check on the internet (which, by the way, doesn’t know much about the phrase), here’s what we came up with:
- The ‘blood of the covenant’ is an image of warfare. Those who spill blood together with you on the battlefield are more your family than your biological family – ‘water’ being the waters of the womb. Your brothers-in-arms should come first.
- The ‘blood of the covenant’ is the blood of the New Covenant, the blood of Christ. When women would join a convent they were taught that the ‘blood’ of Jesus as redeemer is thicker than their biological families. The church family should come first.
So, it actually never means that family should come before all else. It clearly means the opposite!
Yet, there’s no question that it is ALWAYS used with the intention of saying that family should always come first. But, in a way, it opens the possibility of defining families as those with whom we strike a covenant. It is not the womb alone that defines a family and the pull we feel toward it.
A friend of mine is adopted and she knew from her earliest memory that she was adopted. Her parents put it to her that she was ‘chosen’. In fact, they explained to her that they felt bad for other families because other parents were stuck with what they got but her parents felt lucky because they got to choose her. She was told that she was born of their hearts.
This idea of family by choice speaks clearly in this week’s parsha, Vayigash. Jacob and his family have been brought to Egypt to reunite with Joseph. In fact, it is Pharaoh who commanded that they all come to Egypt. Pharaoh is not unbiased in this matter. In essence, Pharaoh adopted Joseph when he renamed him, gave him a wife and a job as second in command. Pharaoh has heard that Jacob, the biological father, is still alive. As the head of an empire family, Pharaoh knows ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’. Jacob must appear before him.
When Pharaoh and Jacob meet, they both realize they represent different families to Joseph. Jacob is the family of birth, while Pharaoh is the family of choice. Why else did Joseph never send for his father in all the years of Egypt? One of Pharaoh’s first questions of Jacob is to ask how old he is (in other words, how much longer do I have to worry about you). Jacob answers by saying ‘I’m old but I come from a line of people of longevity’, (I might be old now, but I’m not as old as I’m going to get – I’m not going anywhere fast). Interesting response, since earlier Jacob stated that he only wants to live long enough to see Joseph, then he can die. Now, with Pharaoh in the picture, he suddenly indicates he’s got a lot of living to do.
There are many relationships in our lives and we build many families around us. Some feel the commitment of blood should surpass all else while others feel the commitment of loyalty should define. The Torah commands us to behave a certain way toward family, without stating that the family of birth is of preference to all others. Family is a foundation from which we build more families and we define and navigate peace within our families – all of them.
As Pharaoh and Jacob stand facing each other, I can’t help but think each of them, in their own cultural language, is looking at the other and thinking ‘but blood is thicker than water’ and they’d both be right.