Parshat Vayigash: The Human Family Blood, Sweat & Tears

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:

  1. 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.

OR

  1. 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.

I Can Sing A Rainbow

Hi everyone,

Hope you had a great week.  This week’s parshah is Noah, the story we all learned as children about the Great Flood, the Ark and the animals who came in twosie-twosies.

The story lends itself to fantastic imagery and grandeur.  And while that may speak well to children and their developmental stages of understanding, it is the nuances of the narrative that amaze me.

But before we get there, I think we can all appreciate how animals have enriched our lives.  I grew up with a myriad of pets that included many dogs, 1 cat, endless birds and tanks of fish.  I rescued wounded birds from our porch and nursed them back to health in shoe boxes in my closet. My parents never knew.  A few times the birds disappeared from my closet and I spent days quietly searching the house for where they may have flown…(hi mom).

I had a Mynah bird I named Mozart because I was so excited to hear him sing.  Mynah birds imitate sounds and since we had 2 dogs at that time, Mozart learned to bark.  I learned never to underestimate the free will of animals.

And so, we arrive at Noah and the ark of animals.

We know he collected animals to save from the impending doomsday flood.  We know it rained for 40 days and 40 nights and we know Noah sent a dove out to check on things and the dove brought an olive branch back, to show the earth had dried.  Peace was in place between God and humanity so the olive branch has become synonymous with peace.

Ah, if it were only that simple.

The story of Noah and the ark is a birth story.  It is an ark surrounded by water that is carrying the seeds of life within it.  It will take 40 days and 40 is the number of weeks it takes for a human baby to gestate.  And while the image of birth is strong and beautiful, the destructive image of the battle with God is devastating.

The Torah says that God decided to destroy the world because the ways of flesh had corrupted its nature.  Many commentaries have been written to explain what that might mean. Murder, mayhem, immorality, the list becomes a litany of horrors.  But the plainest of meanings is that life had denied its nature, had become inauthentic.

In essence, it means I don’t know who I am or where is my natural place.  Worse, I choose to defy who I am or my natural place. It only gets worse when I add that I am the image of God.  Now it means I don’t know, nor do I care about who, or what, God is. That means I have ignored God or, in the worst of cases, I challenge God.  If I challenge God, I have thrown down the gauntlet and I have now declared God my enemy.

And so, God picks up a divine weapon and wages a war.

When all is said and done, God puts down the weapon and declares that after every rainfall we will see God’s bow in the sky.  The word used is ‘bow’, as in ‘bow and arrow’. The rain from above were the arrows which God had slung to the earth with a divine bow.  It becomes the word ‘rainbow’ because it appears after the rain, but the arch in the image is the image of a weapon, the image of a bow. God disarms and places the weapon forever hanging, forever inactive.  That is the beauty of it and that is why it should comfort us.

That is the grandeur.

And a beautiful subtle moment is when Noah sends out 2 birds to see if things are dry.  The first bird is a raven, it is male. The Torah says it won’t go far from the ark, it keeps circling and coming back.  The Sages say it is protecting its mate and will not leave her. So Noah sends out a dove, a female. She returns with a branch.  She lets Noah know that she has what she needs to build a nest. That is when he knows all is good.

The Torah says that animals go into the ark but families emerge.  The raven, who would not leave his mate and the dove who seeks to secure her babies.  The present and the future.

So let’s keep singing the Noah children’s song, ‘it rained and poured for forty daysie-daysies…’ but never allow that to keep us from enjoying the wonder that is above and living with us.