In preparation for the new season of Downton Abbey, PBS ran a behind-the-scenes show the other night. I was struck by their insistence on propriety. Clothing, posture, and manners must adhere to the period. (Although, we have caught a few 21st century catch phrases in this early 20th century piece.) As I heard Hugh Bonneville, the actor who plays Lord Grantham, speak about manners, I thought, we could use some more today.
In this world of “No problem” as a response to “Thank you” and unanswered emails meaning non-interest (or maybe acknowledgement, I’m not sure), manners are a nice thing. When kids are little, parents often say, “What do you say?” And the response will either be “Thank you” or “Sorry!” I pride myself on saying “Thank you” often, and I appreciate my colleagues who actually acknowledge emails. (They’re usually over 45 years old.) As a women’s basketball fan, I love how both teams, and the coaches from both teams, go through a “high-five” line at the end of every game. There are even some hugs! I noticed that football has some form of this ritual. This Sunday, my NY Giants had a heartbreaking loss with a tie-breaking, last second field goal. (This is the second time this season that this happened.) Did Eli Manning steam into the locker room? No, he went to shake hands with the opposing quarterback and the coach did the same with his counterpart while players on both teams mingled with one another on the field.
Yet, our public discourse these days has devolved into crude innuendo and even dangerous racial and ethnic language. Emily Post, the mother of modern etiquette, would most certainly be red-faced following the campaigns and news. There are presidential candidates who use immature language to spew hatred against ethic groups that are different from themselves. Acting like big men (yes, they are men) they hide their fear of the “other” in lies about hidden dangers. They suggest that refugees are the enemy and not really people in need. They suggest that we should kill terrorists’ families. The ugliness is beyond the pale. (I’d rather not give these guys more publicity by mentioning names. After all, we are taught to blot out Amalek.) And Americans have taken their sentiments to heart by burning mosques and by attacking and killing Muslims in this country. America, the land of freedom. Often, these acts are committed by people who consider themselves God-fearing. Yet, they seem to have absolutely no clue about God. They seem to have missed the many lessons that the Torah has to teach them.
As we complete the book of Bereshit this week with Parashat Vayechi, I can’t help thinking about how much we as a people learned since the creation. If we look at the Torah as the history of our people, then the book of Bereshit can be seen as our growing up as a family and the remaining four books can be seen as our growing up as a nation. In Bereshit we see a lot of growing and learning. Even God learns. Right after creation, in the second portion of Noach, God destroys all that lives on the earth. After that, God says that will never happen again. And when God is angry again in Parashat Vayera, God doesn’t destroy everyone, just the people of Sodom and Gemorrah. And, in the story of Jonah, God threatens to destroy a city and in the end, lets the people repent and change there way. Perhaps this was God creating teshuvah. I often wondered whether there is an entire planet that God destroys before Bereshit even begins. If God can learn to temper God’s anger, to widen God’s view, to be more accepting, perhaps we should too.
The main family story of Bereshit really starts with Abraham. We know that he had two sons, Ishmael from Hagar and Isaac from Sarah. Ishmael is actually the first born, but once Sarah, Abraham’s wife, gives birth to Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael are cast out (Parashat Vayera). You would think that Ishmael would hold a grudge against his brother Isaac and his father Abraham. No. We learn at the end of Abraham’s life, the sons come together to bury their father (Parashat Chayei Sarah). If Isaac and Ishmael can learn to temper their anger, widen their view, and be more accepting of one another, perhaps we should too.
We see a similar story with Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau. Jacob stole the first-born Esau’s birthright and blessing (Parashat Toldot). But in the end, they reunite. Even though it is twenty years later, Jacob is worried that the bigger Esau would want to exact vengeance for Jacob’s earlier acts. But no. Upon seeing Jacob, Esau weeps and kisses him. Jacob has nothing to fear from Esau and Esau shares his wealth with Jacob. Esau says that he has more than enough in the world and gives to his brother (Parashat Vayislach). If Esau can learn to temper his anger, widen his view, and open his heart to his brother, perhaps we should too.
And now we come to the next generation in this week’s portion, Parashat Vayechi. It is the end of Joseph’s story. To recap from the past few Torah portions, Joseph was his father Jacob’s favorite son, eldest of his beloved Rachel, and next to youngest son. His father gives him a fancy cloak, the “coat of many colors” that we all drew pictures of as kids in Hebrew school. Because of his father’s doting, he grows up to be an obnoxious, spoiled young man. He interprets one of his own dreams to mean that he will one day rule over his older brothers. His brothers are not amused. (He couldn’t have kept this dream to himself?) His father sends him to check on his brothers who are out in the field. (I’ve wondered whether this is a set-up or Jacob is simply blinded by love for his son.) They take the opportunity to do evil. First they want to kill him, then they throw him in a pit, and finally they sell him as a slave. Despite the obstacles, and many adventures to come, it turns out that Jacob’s gift for dream interpretation is his get-out-of-jail-free card. Jacob rises to become the Pharaoh’s highest adviser. He has changed so that when Joseph’s brother’s come looking for food during a time of famine, they don’t recognize him. At first, he tries to hide himself and plays some tricks on his brother, but as we saw in last week’s portion, he can’t hide. Joseph tells them not to worry about selling him to the slave traders. It all turned out for the best. And even this week, when Jacob dies and the brothers fear that Joseph might finally exact his revenge, Joseph says not to fear, because he will take care of them and their families. If Joseph can learn to temper his anger, widen his view, and open his heart to his brothers, perhaps we should too.
This New Year I pray that our xenophobic, racially charged anger and ugly speech will stop. I pray that our nation’s leaders and leader wannabes on all levels will learn how to be civil with one another and with America and the world. I pray that they will change their rhetoric from nastiness to welcoming. And I pray that we elect leaders that will follow the values of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And when they don’t, that they can learn from their mistakes, temper their anger, widen their views, and open their hearts to those in need. And I pray that we can too.