Happy holidays. This time of year often raises debate over that phrase, but why should anyone bother trying to determine the correct holiday to wish each person? There are so many to wish happy! Thanksgiving has barely passed, Chanukah is nearly upon us, before we know it will be New Years, and in between, many, if not all of us will be helping various friends and family celebrate their holidays – Christmas, Kwanzaa, Solstice, and so on. Holidays can be loads of fun and a source of great warmth, but they can also be a source of stress as we plan large family gatherings and worry about what family members will likely start a fight right in front of the cheese and crackers table, keeping everyone else from being able to have their nosh before latkes are ready.
In this week’s parasha, we find a family in turmoil. Many of us have a Joseph in our family. That brother, uncle, mother-in-law, whatever who is too smug, who is too favored, who always get first pick of the dark meat off the turkey at Thanksgiving, gets the crispiest latke at Chanukah, and who has a habit of rubbing it everyone else’s faces. Hopefully, each family also has a Reuven, though, eager to smooth out the family feuds, willing to be bipartisan, who runs to the rescue when any of us are backed in a corner by less forgiving other relatives.
In the Torah, Reuven convinces his fellow brothers not to kill Joseph, no matter how obnoxious he might be. He allows the brothers to throw Joseph in a pit, instead, with the intention of pulling him out and returning him to their father at a later time when the other brothers aren’t looking. But where is Reuven when Joseph is sold into slavery? The Torah just says Reuven returned to the pit and found Joseph was gone, without mention of where or when he had left in the first place. Rashi explains this is because he had gone back home to serve their father and returned to the pastures where the brothers had been grazing sheep only to save Joseph from the pit. Reuven is split, having to care for different family members in different places, and in making a choice to uphold his commitment to one, he has effectively turn his back on another. What an awful choice to have to make.
Should Reuven have been more forceful with his brothers in convincing them to not kill Joseph? If he hadn’t had to be sneaky, maybe he would have been able to stop Joseph’s sale into slavery, but then again, maybe he would only have estranged himself from their other brothers in the process and furthered the family struggles. Joseph seems to be very unaware of why his brothers hate him so much; although there is some indication that he does know that they hate him. Maybe it would have been helpful for Reuven to pull Joseph aside and explain why his behavior was problematic, and given him the opportunity to make things right with his brothers himself. But then again, maybe Joseph would get offended and defensive, feeling like he’d lost his last ally, and family dinners would just get that much more awkward.
Of course, we all know that if Joseph hadn’t been sent to Egypt as a slave, then Pharaoh would have no one to interpret his dreams, and Egypt would have been unprepared for the famine, and the rest of Joseph’s family wouldn’t have been able to come to get food from Egypt, and maybe everyone would die of starvation and there would be no Jewish people. Everything worked out the way it did for a reason. But Reuven didn’t, and couldn’t have had the opportunity to realize it for another 22 years, at which point all the family is reunited with Joseph. In the meantime, imagine the guilt he must have felt, the anger at his other siblings, the fear of his father finding out. This winter, with all our holiday craze, as we run around like chickens with our heads cut off, worrying about who is going to whose house for the holiday dinners and parties, who has gifts and who needs what, who gets along and who we have to seat at opposite ends of the table, let’s all take a minute to stop and breathe. Remind all your relatives to stop and breathe. To reflect. To search themselves and look carefully at all the family dynamics. Are you the Joseph, obnoxious and arrogant, off-putting to most of your family? Are you the other brothers, irrationally angry and overdramatic in your reactions to Joseph? Are you Reuven, wanting to make peace in the family and not knowing how? Most likely, we each have a moment to be each of these characters, depending on where we are in our lives, and which relative we are interacting with. This holiday season, can we find to just be Reuven, who loves and is loyal to each of his relatives? Can we all find a way toward humility and understanding? Set aside your angers and your petty differences. Invite back to your holiday dinner that uncle you haven’t spoken to in ages, remember to include everyone on your gift or card list, let your annoying younger brother have the tastiest-looking crispy latke fresh from the pan. It doesn’t matter anymore who is dad’s favorite or what their personal beliefs are. Family can brighten your harsh winter better than any menorah, but only if you let it. As the days start to get very cold, and the dark nights longer, may the light of all the different holidays keep us warm, and may sharing in each other’s joys keep us cheerful.