Have you seen the new episode of that crazy reality show about the dysfunctional family where a father tricks his son-in-law-to-be into marrying both of his daughters instead of just one (dooming the second daughter to a loveless marriage)? And then the two sisters compete to see who can have the most babies, even using their kids’ names to gloat about their victories? And then finally the whole family takes off in the middle of the night, stealing the father’s most precious possession, then lying about it?
Just kidding, it’s not a reality show–it’s this week’s Torah portion, Vayetze.
This is the time of year I start asking…why are these stories in our holy book? Why do we read them every year? Why did my ancestors pass them down generation after generation until they reached me? And why should I pass them down to my daughter?
One of my favorite Hasidic concepts is “yerida l’shem aliyah,” going down in order to go up. The idea is that we can only go as high as we can go low; we need to fall in order to rise. We get more sad, angrier, or more hopeless than ever before, and this very depth of feeling teaches us about our own capacity for joy or love or hope.
Recently, I’ve been reading a memoir by the poet Diane Di Prima. She writes about what happened after the death of her mother, Emma, who had always kept her home as cheerful and perfect as possible:
The day of Emma’s funeral I returned with my two brothers to my brother Frank’s house in New Jersey, and the three of us talked for the first time in our lives of some of the darker stuff. It was as if a vast weight had lifted. We learned, for one thing, that each of us thought himself/herself the black sheep of the family–the major disappointment in Emma’s life. We exchanged information that we’d each kept secret: a pending divorce, a chronic illness in one of our children. Information we’d kept to ourselves to avoid breaching the cheerfulness, the determined perfection of our lives.
You can feel the relief between Di Prima and her siblings as they finally admit the reality of their lives to each other, a relief that feels like a form of love. And reading these words, I realized something else about Genesis: despite all the deceit and disappointment in this family, when you read their story, you can also feel so much love between them. It’s that complicated kind of family love, mixed up with the “darker stuff,” and impossible to reach unless you stop pretending to be perfect. It’s the kind of deep love you can only earn over time, through mistakes and forgiveness and more mistakes.
And this is why I want my daughter to know these stories. It’s precisely because these characters, these families, are so imperfect. I want her to know that she is going to mess up, and I am going to mess up, and her dad is going to mess up, and so will all of our friends and family and everyone we love. We will hurt each other by accident and maybe even on purpose sometimes. We’ll try to do better, but we won’t always succeed. Our stories matter not in spite of these failings, but because of them. And we love each other not in spite of our imperfection, but because of it.
This is what I want my little girl to know: we go down in order to go up. This is how we learn about love.
To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.