It’s all about succession and continuity, it’s all about family and money, sibling rivalry, marriages and parenting, it’s all about the transmission of tradition and what you’re prepared to make sacrifices for. I’m of course talking about the Netflix series Succession, which attracted more views than there are Jews on earth! More views than Jews!
I wasn’t going to watch it after the overwhelming vulgarity and crassness of the first few episodes, but then my wife, Caron, who had persisted and watched more insisted that it was worth persevering for this was one series that captured our zeitgeist and was a penetrating critique of our times, a deeply insightful analysis of the human condition, a Divine instruction to pay attention to Logan Roy and his screwed up family – Thou Shalt surely watch Succession!
And so, I did, and it was as riveting as it was relevant, as compelling as it was disturbing. Even if you haven’t seen it, its themes are worth reflecting on today – it resonates with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur relevance.
In truth its reflected in the Rosh Hashanah Torah Reading about the birth of Isaac, the competition between Abraham’s partners Sarah and Hagar the handmaiden, the horrible tension between the two sons Isaac and Ishmael, the treatment of women – Hagar is cast out, a victim of domestic abuse, and then there’s the money and the power – maybe not Roy family fabulous wealth, but Abraham and Sarah are wealthy and influential, and Abraham (like Logan and the President) is a political influencer, confronting kings and making treaties about the land. It’s a family drama of triumph and tragedy and an Amazing Amazon Abraham series in the making.
So what do I take from Succession and learn from Abraham?
First, that all families are complicated and filled with what’s now called neurodiverse individuals.
Families hold us and heal us, protect and profoundly impact us, but they’re also painful and perplexing, challenging and infuriating. Even though the meaning and definition of family has changed considerably, the power of family has, in my mind, increased exponentially and become more important. It remains one of the critical frameworks of contemporary society.
It is still the strongest force to nurture a sense of self, to create attachment to others… It lifts us at a time of celebration, it holds us in our time of need, it protects us against the winds of change.
Of course, when families are dysfunctional, they can cause immense danger. And as much as families can hold and heal us, they can harm and hurt us too. Mishpachology can lead to Mishpathology! All those strong and ambivalent emotions that families evoke remind me of the acute observation of the Latin poet Catullus:
“I hate and yet I love. You may wonder how I manage it. I don’t know but feel it and am in torment …”
Sarah’s behaviour is an example of this and hard to fathom – she personally brings Hagar in as handmaiden and is then resentful of her success and her power. She treats her badly as the harsh Hebrew word – innuy – suggests. Even if Sarah’s pain is understandable, her actions are questionable and we feel Hagar’s pain and despair when she is expelled into the desert. And she reminds us today that one in six Australian women, and one in nine men, experienced physical and sexual abuse before the age of 15, and that the abuse of women in Australia is still widespread and frequent.
A heart rending element of the Succession series is the desperation of Logan’s three children for his approval. How easily he disillusions and flattens them: “You are not serious figures” he says to them, “I love you but you are not serious people”. For much of my adult life I longed for my Dad to articulate his recognition of what I had achieved. There’s a subtle reading of Jacob’s words to his mother (Genesis 27:12) when he questions how he could deceive his father into believing he was his brother who was a very hairy individual and he was smooth skinned: “Perhaps my father will touch me (and know)”. These words can be read and translated as: “If only my Dad will actually touch, hold and hug me…”.
From the story of Abraham and the others in Genesis, which portray envy, sibling rivalry and miscommunication, I still learn hope – Isaac and Ishmael reconcile, and come together at the funeral of their father. And maybe there’s also a message of hope here that Jews and Muslims can actually come together because of their common father. Maybe that’s why the Abraham accords taking place now between Israel and its Arab neighbours will work. In the Book of Genesis, Joseph and his brothers find some kind of peace at the end, and the triangular relationship of Moses, Aaron and Miriam is an example of a fine geometric and empathetic sibling relationship.
One of the power houses of contemporary Jewish life remains family – the gathering that takes place every Friday night regardless of the religious commitment of the members. An opportunity to greet and eat, debate and create, to touch base, to connect and hopefully to feel appreciated and love. It remains one of the highlights of the week for Caron and myself, for our children and grandchildren. So each Shabbat, that key day of the Jewish week, Jews focus on family. On Friday night we bless them with that immeasurably beautiful blessing “May God bless you and look after you, let the light of his face illuminate you and give you peace”. We also sing with them the lovely song, Shalom Aleichem, that welcomes in the Shabbat presence personified as angels. Shlomo Carlebach suggested that the farewell to these angels be extended to our adult children as they leave us and move into the world seeking their own independence. Tzeitchem LeShalom, Go in Peace, when you walk out of your childhood home; remember every kiss, every hug, every act of love my angels now that you are going out into the world to create your own homes and children.
If there is one lesson of life worth learning and remembering it is to recognise the power of family to remember that it takes work, love, energy and doggedness to create strong families. It’s also to appreciate that not everybody is blessed with a loving and harmonious family, and when we see this to reach out with empathy and practicality.
And don’t wait: Abraham sadly doesn’t get to witness the reconciliation of his two sons (Genesis 25:9). An old song of Mike and the Mechanics captures the poignancy:
The Living Years –
I know that I’m a prisoner to all my father held so dear
I know that I’m a hostage to all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years…
Say it loud, say it clear
It’s too late when we die
To admit we don’t see eye to eye
It’s all about succession and legacy – The essential question of the series and indeed Torah in Genesis: what is worth passing on, can love triumph over sibling strife and sorrow, can the hubris of patriarchal power and obscene wealth yield to a moral imperative of compassionate humanity and humility, is abuse inevitable?
The answer lies in Abraham, who is a counterpoint to Logan. He too may be flawed, but he, unlike Logan, is also what Kierkegaard called a Knight of faith.
Logan’s brother, Ewan’s, eulogy to Logan is powerful, penetrating and passionate:
“I loved him, I suppose, and I suppose some of you did too in whatever way he would let us. But I can’t help, but say he has wrought some of the most terrible things. He was a man who was here and there drawn in the edges of the world, now, and then darkened the skies a little. Closed men’s hearts. Fed that dark flame in men, the hard mean … flame that keeps their heart warm, while another grows cold. Their grain stashed while another goes hungry…’’ Contrast this with – the words of the son of the fabled Israeli singer, Naomi Shemer, a singer and composer himself, when asked what it was like to grow up in the shadow of such a prominent songwriter, he said: “I did not grow up in her shadow. I grew up in her light.”
Abraham and Sarah have the passion to help close the gap between those who have and those who don’t. They are the models of chesed, compassion and hospitality. They don’t stash, but reach out. Abraham was a fabulously wealthy man, but that’s not what we remember him for; and we know his money didn’t buy him Gods admiration. So many families are torn apart by money – wills and animosity – so much angst because the patriarchs and matriarchs don’t plan and because of the terrible hubris of the moguls who can’t accept their mortality. As USA Jewish billionaire Adelson said before he died: “Why do I need succession planning? I’m very alert, I’m vibrant, I have no intention to retire”.
Logan is intoxicated and obsessed by success, Abraham is possessed and passionate about succession. Abraham knows why you need a succession plan – because you are human, ”I am dust and earth” he laments. The challenge to us all – accept the limitations of our fleeting breath. To recognise we are not indispensable, that the number 1 role of any leader is to identify and prepare their successor. The Talmud story of Choni records for us that a society grows great when old men and women plant trees whose shade they shall never sit under, when the old aren’t climate deniers but focus on how we can save our planet for our grandchildren – I am haunted by the scorched landscapes of Rhodes Island and Hawaii, the flooded devastation of Libya, the ice melting, the coral bleaching. We need a succession plan for our wounded world, a priority as important as preserving Jewish identity is preserving a world where we can have an identity.
Legacy is the vision of your influence on earth after you cease to be part of it.
A former CEO of Coca Cola, Brian Dyson, once addressed a group of graduates with an arresting observation:
“Imagine life is a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air – work, family, health, friends, and spirit. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it can, and it usually does, bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and faith are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably damaged, scuffed, marked, nicked or even shattered. They will never be the same, strive for balance in your life”.
Let us ensure that we pay attention to our health and fitness, our faith and family, and our friends. As Jews, we have always focused on these balls. It’s how we have survived and thrived in the past. It is how we build a future. So let’s ensure that we become and remain ardent and dexterous Jugglers for the future. Keep those balls moving exquisitely through the year, and the air…