As most of you know, tonight I am saying kaddish for my mother, who died 31 years ago next Wednesday. She died suddenly, but not surprisingly, somehow, but we didn’t get to say good-bye that last time. In fact, she was supposed to come out to visit me in San Francisco the next week, and as she lay dying, I had been trying to call her to discuss the menu of the dinner party I was planning for her to meet my friends.
I loved my mother deeply and she, me: we were very connected, and yet, I felt like I could not become my own person unless I moved away from her. San Francisco was about as far from her as I could go and still be in the continental United States. She knew me very well, and we shared many qualities and interests. We were both Anglophiles. We loved theatre. We loved to read. We shared political outlooks (she indoctrinated her daughters well). We both loved Steuben crystal; indeed the same crystal that I use at shabbat at home.
But that bit about me needing to move 3000 miles away was real. She had so many expectations of me that I never seemed to meet. I was also greeted by the recurring sentence, “No daughter of mine would…” fill in the blank. (I didn’t read her favorite novel until after she died when a friend told me it was actually wonderful. But I wouldn’t try it until after the rebellion had past its expiration date.) I felt that she didn’t see me for who I saw myself as, that I lived under her judgment and disappointment. And so I moved away for some measure of self protection and autonomy.
As we approach her yahrzeit, I think a lot about her and about our ongoing relationship. I think about the legacies she handed to my sisters and me, and which ones I accepted and which ones I embraced.
And here we are at Vayechi, the final torah portion in Genesis, the end of the story of the family of Abraham. We stand at Jacob’s death bed, surrounded by his twelve sons and two of his grandsons. He gives them each a blessing. (Unlike his father Isaac, he seems to have believed that he had more than one blessing.)
As seen in Gen. 49, not each of these is exactly what we tend to think of as blessings. Reuven’s, Shimon’s and Levi’s are particularly pointed. Jacob is describing his three oldest children accurately as far as we know. Let’s look at Reuven: We know that Reuven slept with one of Jacob’s concubines, one of his stepmothers, a definite no-no in terms of family dynamics. At the same time, we know that Reuven was the one brother who did not want to kill Joseph. We know that he persuaded them not to commit fratricide. There was more to him than Jacob acknowledged. We don’t know if Jacob knew the whole story by now of what happened that day long ago when he was told Joseph was torn about by a wild beast. Once the family arrived in Goshen, maybe they confessed the whole story, or maybe they just told him the outlines. But all Jacob reminds him of now is of his disrespect to his father.
Isn’t that the way we so often are? We see mainly the part that affects us most personally and leave out the rest. It is clear that Jacob knew his sons really well. He remembered, he foretold, he taught. But his vision was limited by his experience of the relationship.
I am reading a book by Andrew Solomon that I learned about while glued to the TV after the terrible events in Newtown: Far from the Tree, about children who are distinctly different from their parents. He had interviewed parents of criminals (including Dylan Klebold’s parents), as well as parents of children with disabilities, who are gay, who are prodigies – whose difference are their identity – different from their parents. Some identities he discusses are also illnesses or disabilities, like schizophrenia or autism or deafness. Some are not – prodigies, gay children (although certainly it used to be seen that way)… But the point that relates to our torah portion is – the ways in which we are different from our parents are really challenging for the parents who expected some version of a mini-Me. Our kids are likely to be the same color we are (although not our President’s family), religion (at least initially). They have our eyes, or grandma’s hair, or Aunt Sally’s smile. Often those similarities breed expectations, as they did for my mother. (My sisters and I look like variations on a theme, and manage to look like both sides of our family.)
This happens with everyone we meet—we see them through the lens of our experience, our expectations, our cultural and familial codes. We are human after all. But it happens even more so with our family members. We pour our hopes and dreams in, we see potential, and we want the best for them—and we believe we know what is best…. But we also see them through the lens of our intimacy, our experience. You remember the moment when your children’s friends’ parent told you what a wonderful guest, how helpful your kid was at their house, the same kid you couldn’t get to clean her room? We are relieved, and surprised, and gratified. But we might not have seen it coming. Hopefully it helps us rethink, or acknowledge. But sometimes not.
Each year we come to the torah portion a little different from last year. Last year, I discussed how Jacob was right to tell Reuven what he thought. This year, I wonder if his poor parenting skills continued to this moment of his death. If what he said to him would make Reuven spend the rest of his life resenting his father even more, make him bitter.
I believe Jacob meant well, meant to give his children a blessing that could serve them as they lived the rest of their lives without his presence. But I believe that he missed yet again and our lesson tonight is to try, to really try to see our children, see our parents, see our loved ones accurately, see them for themselves, without the familial expectations, and to consider what legacy we want to leave them with. My mother left me my social justice outlook, my dedication to help people who need help, She left me deep love tainted with judgment and my love of reading and theatre, she left me anxiety, and she left me The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. I hope I am leaving Olya her grandmother’s social justice outlook, and dedication to helping others, my deep love not tainted by judgment, my love of cats, and my abiding dedication to spiritual growth. From her I have learned deep kindness and the value of presence and silliness.
What about you? What have your legacies been, what are you hoping to leave?