The well-known actor Michael J Fox put it simply and directly: Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.
This is a sentiment that Judaism has embraced from its very beginnings. The book of Genesis is in many ways, about the genesis, challenge and opportunity that family presents us.
From the first family of humanity – Adam and Eve and their children – to the founding family of Judaism namely Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, the first book of the Bible reflects the joy and anguish, the aspirations and the angst of belonging to this group. In fact, you could call this the family book. It is only in the second book of the Torah, Exodus, that the birth of the Jewish nation is recorded. There is a strong and profound message in this: you can’t build a strong nation if you can’t build a strong family.
American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, makes the distinction between traditional relationships which are born of things like kinship and shared spiritual visions and commodified relationships which are transactional and commercial. We have heard a lot about a strong economy in the electioneering over the last few months. We haven’t heard enough about a strong family, a resilient community, a caring kinship.
The closeness and kinship of family informs the new nation of Israel. They are acutely conscious of their roots, the family of their origin, of the influence and power of their patriarchs and matriarchs. The people of Israel are described as a family, namely the children of Israel. The references to the Jewish people as family or mishpacha are replete in the Bible. The prophets describe the relationship between God and Israel as a family one. God plays the roles of both father and mother. Hosea (11:1-4) tenderly paints the picture of God teaching his first born child how to walk:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son… It was I who taught [them]to walk, taking them by the arms… I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek and I bend down to feed them.
One of the first things that Jewish people do when they meet one another is to check out their mishpachology, how their families intertwine and how closely they may be related!
The family held the Jewish people together through their long exiles through the dark mediaeval times and the family holds them together in modern times. The meaning and definition of family has changed considerably but the power of family has increased exponentially. 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 our time of celebration, it holds us in our time of need, it protects us against the winds of change.
That Hebrew word for family, mishpacha, is related to and has the meaning of plenty, the gathering of many into a mass or unit. Samson Hirsch who suggests this, also notes how the Hebrew word shifcha or servant (which has the same Hebrew letters in it bar one) is associated closely with family. From this Hirsch makes the illuminating remark that the individual who has the very lowest social status in society is raised up to be a member of the family. Family is where you can be yourself regardless of your material or social standing. “That’s what people do who love you. They put their arms around you and love you when you’re not so lovable” (Deb Caletti).
Of course, when families are dysfunctional they can cause immense damage. As much as families can hold and heal us they can harm and hurt us too. Mishpachology can lead to Mishpathology!! Fortunately families, like individuals, can be improved and they can learn how to do things better. One of the great gifts of the 20th century was surely the development of family therapy.
This is also one of the central lessons of the Book of Genesis which portrays the envy, sibling rivalry and miscommunication of dysfunctional families, but ends on a note of hope with Joseph and his brothers reconciling. The triangular relationship of Moses Aaron and Miriam is an example of a perfect geometric and empathetic relationship.
One of the power horses of contemporary Jewish life is family. It is expressed best in Australia in the family gathering that takes place every Friday night, every Shabbat, regardless of the religious commitment of the members. It is probably the most regular Jewish practice in Australia. They come together to greet and to eat, to debate and create. At the very least it is an opportunity to touch base, to connect, and hopefully to feel appreciated and loved. It remains one of the highlights of the week for my wife Caron and myself, for our children and grandchildren.
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 and energy to create strong families. It is 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. This is something that Jewish Care does so well, not only for its family of employees, but also for many families across our Victorian Jewish community.
Family has to be one of Gods greatest gifts to us. I like Brad Henry’s definition of it and the way it completes the statement of Michael Fox, (so poignant and powerful in the light of Fox’s Parkinson’s condition) that I opened with:
“Families are the compass that guide us. They are the inspiration to reach great heights, and our comfort when we occasionally falter.”