Carving out a new place leads to lasting change

Carving out a new place leads to lasting change

Rabbi Stephanie Wolfe
Rabbi Stephanie Wolfe

Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1-40:23

Many of us have had those moments when we do something or say something and afterward think, “I’ve turned into my mother (or father).”

It doesn’t matter how far away we have moved or how we have worked to become our own person, a part of our past is always with us, bringing us back to that which we know so well. 

How is it that Jacob, who was raised in a home in which each parent favored one of the children, comes to favor one of his children over the other?  Did he not remember the damage done to his relationship with his own brother, Esau, caused by this favoritism?

Yet, Jacob “loves Joseph best of all sons,” and every member of the family knows it. The cycle continues as Joseph becomes aware of his father’s feelings and finds ways to remind his brothers of his favored status. His brothers, in turn, demonstrate their resentment of Joseph’s status and of his dream interpretations.  Is it really possible that Jacob is clueless to this cycle of repeated behavior?

Each of us knows how very easy it is to repeat the patterns of behavior we learn from in our early lives, be they from our family of origin or others.  As children grow up, they internalize the feelings and associations they experience around certain feelings, specific people, and/or particular behavior.

So, perhaps it is not so surprising that Jacob repeats the behavior of his parents.  Even having lived through the effects of his own upbringing, Jacob is unable to stop the patterns of self-destruction and of resentment between his children, for he has never seen any other model of how family members relate to one another. He continues the pattern with Joseph, and even later with Benjamin, as the Torah recounts how he favored his youngest of all children.  

I, however, think the Torah is really teaching another lesson here: Breaking old patterns, changing behavior, learning new ways to relate to ourselves and to others is never easy. Jacob has struggled with humans and with God, and has even become Israel, but, in many critical ways, he remains the same.

The real challenge lies not in whether we run from the home of our upbringing or in the settling in the same place, but in the ways we integrate the positive lessons we learned and move beyond the destructive patterns we may also have witnessed. Change requires more than awareness of past behavior, and even more, rejecting those patterns.

True growth requires that we seek out alternatives and new ways to behave.  Real change requires that each of us carve our own place in the community and continue to find our own ways to create positive and productive relationships with those around us.  Then we will have learned from this week’s parshah.

Shabbat Shalom.

(With thanks to the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.)

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)