D’var Torah: Family matters

Rachel LaVictoire, 18, is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a freshman. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center. Rachel will be contributing regular commentaries and d’var Torah reflections, which will be posted on the Jewish Light’s website,  stljewishlight.com — some of which will also be included in the Jewish Light’s print editions.

By Rachel LaVictoire

       Do you remember that time when you were little and your brother took your cereal bowl, the really cool one with Woody and Buzz Lightyear all over it? How about your first “date” when that really cute girl in your class came over to watch a movie and your dad peered over from the kitchen? Do you remember last Thanksgiving? Your mom thought it would be fun to tell your kids about all of the stuff you got in trouble for when you were a kid. Does any of that stuff still upset you? Of course not. 

       The ties between family are both laughable and unbreakable. My rabbi in Atlanta always says, “Who do you think causes the most grief in your parents’ lives? You. And who do you think causes the most pleasure in your parents’ lives? Also you.”

It’s true. Family members do things that cause your stomach to flip with frustration. Moms nag, dads embarrass. Brothers hit, sisters whine. Grandparents are stubborn. And yet, you loved Thanksgiving dinner and being with all of those nagging, whining, embarrassing people.

       I have a cousin named Sara. She is four months and17 days older than me, which puts us in the same grade, but with her in possession of bragging rights. She used to live in New Jersey, and when I visited I would sleep in a sleeping bag next to her bed. She stepped on, or kicked me, every morning when she got up at 4 a.m. We would play together just fine until our equally bossy personalities got in the way. I would argue about the outfits and personalities of Samantha and Kit (our American Girl dolls). Sara, meanwhile, always wanted to show off her impressive dance moves — she took classes after all.

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In fifth grade, she moved to Atlanta, less than a half-mile from my house. My longtime neighborhood best friend/cute boy in my class became her next-door neighbor. She went to my school and became friends with my friends, or rather, stole all of my friends, as my 10-year-old eyes saw it. We took the same classes and slyly asked one another about the last vocab test… I thought it was pretty easy, how’d you do? We bickered and teased. We were feuding pre-pubescent girls who really didn’t like each other. But at birthday celebrations and Shabbat dinners we’d kiss each other on the cheek and say, “I love you.”

I’m comfortable saying all of this because we now both laugh at how ridiculous we were. The beauty of being family is that even though we messed up all of those years of friendship, we still have a lifetime to be cousins. If you don’t like someone in junior high, you might not see that person ever again. If you don’t like your cousin in junior high, you allow time to turn love into like and you stay in touch for the rest of your life.

       Two weeks ago, in Toldot, Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. This week, in Vayishlach, Jacob seeks out his brother to ask for forgiveness. He sends angels to Esau, and offers oxen, donkeys, flocks and maidservants in exchange for forgiveness. The angels return to Jacob saying, “we came to your brother, to Esau, and he is also coming toward you, and four hundred men are with him” (Genesis 32:7). Jacob panics. Surely Esau is coming to kill him. Jacob did, in fact, cheat his brother out of an invaluable blessing.

       He set a plan for protection. He divided the people, flocks, and cattle into two camps. He said, “if Esau comes to one camp and strikes it down, the remaining camp will escape” (Genesis 32:9). Jacob sent three servants ahead to give Esau three consecutive gifts. Maybe by the time Esau reaches me, he will be more grateful, than angry.

       Jacob spent the night with his two wives and eleven children and woke to find Esau approaching. This is it. He lined up his family and he walked ahead, alone.

       And the parshah reads, “And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). There was no reason for Jacob to be afraid; families don’t hold grudges. Esau did not accept his brothers’ gifts and later that day the brothers separated again. Esau left for Seir and Jacob for Succoth. They would both grow to be great leaders. They would be different men, leading different lands, but they would always be brothers and would always share a love for each other.

       Sara and I are now 18 years old. I’m at Washington University. Sara deferred her acceptance to Vanderbilt University to spend the year in France. I sometimes think I want to be a professor when I get older, Sara sometimes things she wants to be a dentist (I say sometimes because we are both terrible at making up our minds). We’ve parted ways and I suppose it’s time to realize we won’t always live less than half a mile apart. But we’ll always be cousins.

       Family is always family. Your brother might hog the XBox controller and your mom might nag you to clean your room. Your dad might sing in public and your cousin, well, she might kick you at 4 a.m. But this week we learn to deal with all of that— with a hug and a kiss.