As the holiday season approaches, I often think about Leo Tolstoy’s observation at the beginning of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In a few weeks we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving. While there are a number of rituals associated with this holiday (turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, the argument over which is better), they are all secondary to gathering around the table with family and friends. And people do. The days that come before and after Thanksgiving are the busiest travel periods of the year, as millions of people find their way across the country to visit children, parents, grandparents, and so on.
And for those of us who do make this pilgrimage (and I want to acknowledge that some of us cannot or do not spend the holiday with family), it’s not always something we look forward to. At least not completely.
Thanksgiving is founded on a number of myths (the story of the first one, for example) – and one of these is the idea of intergenerational family bliss, probably best captured by Norman Rockwell in his painting, Freedom From Want (part of a four-piece series inspired by FDR’s 1941 State of the Union). You might know it. The scene is a family gathering: the grandfather looks on proudly while the grandmother carefully sets a turkey down on the crowded table, as everyone smiles at each other in anticipation.
This isn’t what my Thanksgiving looks like (I don’t think it has ever looked that way). And I know that’s true for many of us. There are people missing from the table. Some have died. Some couldn’t make it. Some chose not to make it. And for those who are there, it’s a careful game of matchmaker meets musical chairs. People who can’t sit next to each other because of an old grudge, or because they’ll start talking politics, or because they always argue after drinking all day. Or maybe it’s a tragedy we don’t talk about anymore, or the pressure of bills, or the pain of someone’s declining health. Each unhappy family, however mild or severe the unhappiness might be, is unhappy in its own way.
When we open the Torah this week, we meet a very unhappy family. Sarah, the matriarch, has died. Her husband Abraham is forced to bury her alone. His two sons are gone. He had forced his eldest, Ishmael (along with his mother Hagar), to leave home years ago; they have not been seen since. And his other son Isaac, having recently experienced the trauma of almost being sacrificed by his father, has struck out on his own. And so Abraham sits at the table by himself – and the text is ambiguous, it’s unclear whether he will see either of his sons again, whether anyone will join him back home, before he dies at the end of this parashah.
Perhaps hoping to bring Isaac back to the table, Abraham proposes that his servant find a wife for him – returning to their ancestral homeland to see if there are any suitable matches among the extended family. The servant asks a reasonable question, “What if this woman doesn’t want to come with a stranger to a place she has never been to marry a man she has never met? Perhaps I can find Isaac and bring him there?” Abraham panics, “Hishamer l’cha pen tashiv et b’ni shamah, do not take my son back there! If she refuses to come back, I’ll forgive you; you did your best. But do not take my son away from me.” Abraham is desperate to keep the remains of his family (however unhappy they may be) intact.
But the question remains: where is Isaac? Some rabbis say he decided to study Torah, to better understand a God that would have commanded the terrible deed of child sacrifice (and maybe even make sense of why his father obeyed). Other rabbis say he sought out his half-brother Ishmael, now better understanding the wounds that their father had inflicted on him. And a few say Isaac wandered so far that he reached the Garden of Eden. But wherever he may be, he is not sitting at the table with Abraham. It’s too hard. It’s too complicated. It’s too painful.
I imagine that Abraham’s desperation to find a wife for Isaac comes from a good place. But it’s not what Isaac needs, at least right now. When confronted with difficult emotions, our impulse is to find a solution for them. But sometimes what we need most is to simply have someone listen to our feelings. The researcher Brené Brown teaches that this is the key difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy tries to fix, to reason, to put a silver lining on how we feel. Empathy is about creating space for our feelings, including some that might not actually have or need a solution.
Abraham may have abundant sympathy for Isaac. But he seems to lack empathy.
I imagine that this is why, when we do encounter Isaac in the Torah, he’s wandering alone lasuach ba’sadeh – talking to the emptiness around him. He doesn’t need a wife. He needs to be heard, in all of his pain and rage and sadness. Of course there is the trauma of having been nearly slaughtered, his father binding him hand and foot at the top of Mount Moriah after he had asked, again and again, where was the animal they were going to sacrifice. And then the fact that he probably doesn’t know where his brother is – a relationship that was already complicated by the animosity between their mothers, and torn apart when Ishmael and Hagar were forced to leave home. And his mother has just died. Perhaps in front of him, as one rabbinic account tells it, Sarah being unable to cope with the shock of hearing him tell her what his father had just done.
And so, feeling like no one – not even his father – understands him, Isaac gives up his seat at the table and isolates himself. This is an understandable response to loss, to anger, to grief – and to feeling like none of those emotions are being seen or heard by those around us. It’s a response that many of us know well.
It is also one that our tradition pushes against.
When we have experienced tragedy, when we are stuck in the complicated tangle of our feelings, Judaism asks us to be in community. We bury our dead in community. Opening the doors of our homes during shiva, we mourn in community. Coming to minyan and Shabbat to recite the mourner’s kaddish, we remember in community.
We just closed sheloshim, the thirty day mourning period, since our Jewish brothers, sisters, and siblings were brutally murdered on October 7. We are still waiting to hear word about the hundreds of hostages still held in Gaza. We watch as the death count continues to rise, so many Israelis and Palestinians dead. We mourn the loss of innocent lives, too many of them children.
We feel the rise of antisemitism, around the world and even in the city we call home. For some of us this is an old story, experienced by our families for generations. For others this feels strange and unfamiliar. For all of us, it’s too much.
And in the midst of all of this, Thanksgiving comes and we’re asked to gather around the table ro have a meal with our families. And maybe you will find solace there. But perhaps this moment is adding a new kind of unhappiness to this family gathering, as you sit with people who you find hard to connect with – or perhaps people who are now more difficult to talk to, who have different thoughts or opinions on what is unfolding overseas and in our country. Or maybe you’re not even sure where the conversation will lead – and this is stressful, this is adding anxiety to an already uneasy trip home. I’ve talked to several folks who are scared to ask their relatives what they think about everything that is going on, worried that this will start a fight that they just don’t have the energy to engage in.
And what I have heard most (and what I have also felt) is that we are all talking past each other. That we are yelling to be heard and in response, instead of listening, other people just yell louder. That our particular pain, our anger, our sadness is not being held in this moment by anyone, but especially not by the people who matter most: our families. And I’m not just talking about our families of origin – but our friends, and people we share community with (including this one), other Jews and the people who love us.
A lot of the tables we have become accustomed to sitting at feel complicated, feel uncomfortable, maybe even unsafe right now. The temptation is to give up our seat. To wander alone, like Isaac, speaking to the emptiness (or Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram) and hoping someone will hear us.
But when we have experienced tragedy (and we have experienced tragedy), Judaism asks us to be in community.
When Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael find their way back to each other to bury their father. I don’t know if this was a moment of reconciliation. Perhaps even while they shoveled dirt into his grave they still nursed the wounds that had been inflicted upon them, that they had inflicted on each other. The Torah doesn’t tell us if and how their relationship is healed. But what the Torah does tell us is that in the midst of despair, as they bury a father who both hurt and cared for them – each in their own way – they realize that they can still mourn together. That they can hold each other’s pain, rage, and sadness even if it’s not the same as theirs, even if they don’t agree with it or understand it. Repair is not a prerequisite for empathy, nor does holding another’s pain discount our own.
The writer and activist Dylan Marron published a book last year called Conversations with People Who Hate Me. It’s based on a podcast of the same name, where he sought out conversations with folks who left hateful messages on his content. His mission was simple: to get to know them, to give them the opportunity to get to know him, and to create space for how the other was feeling. He talked to some really difficult people. Some were homophobic, others disliked immigrants, and a few were overtly racist. Yet he found an incredible power in holding space for their feelings. Did it convince them that they were wrong? Not necessarily. But it did remind them that the person they were talking to is human. And it also reminded the people listening to his podcast that these individuals are human too. That we’re all part of this large, messy, and sometimes uniquely unhappy family called humanity.
It can feel easier and better to tell people why they’re wrong, to talk facts and policy points. This is solutioning. Contending with someone else’s fear, anger, and pain is harder. It can feel overwhelming, especially when we’re already holding so much of our own. And when the stakes are high – as they are at this moment – when it feels like our moral compass is spinning, holding space for someone else (especially someone we don’t agree with) can feel like we’re conceding ground. But here’s the thing. We’re not. Dylan Marron writes: “Empathy is not endorsement. Empathizing with someone you profoundly disagree with does not suddenly compromise your own deeply held beliefs and endorse theirs.”
Empathy is not endorsement.
What empathy does do is allow for us to sit at the table together. And we need to sit at the table together, because that’s how we’re going to get through this. We cannot bury our dead alone. We should not mourn or remember them by ourselves. And this, this is what is in our power. To come together in community, just like you are doing right now, to create space for us to grieve together, for us to be afraid together, for us to be angry together – and even if we don’t agree, or understand each other, to say I hear you. I see you.
When you’re ordained, you get to choose a verse from the Torah to be included in the program next to your picture. I chose Exodus 23:9: “Y’datem et nefesh ha’geir ki geirim hayitem, you know the soul of the stranger because you were strangers.” Our tradition recognizes that our pain can be a source of incredible power, because it is the foundation of an empathy that facilitates connection at the very moment when we are tempted to pull away from each other. This is our inheritance. And this is our task. To take our seat at the table. And to make sure there are seats at the table for each other. Because we are family.