Fast of Tevet 5777 / January 8, 2017
If you’ve been studying the weekly Torah portion lately, you will be struck by Genesis’s intense focus on family dynamics. It all can be found in that book – incest, homicide, pimping, slave-trading. This is what what we came from? There are days I wish I’d rather been raised by wolves.
Yesterday, though, we read of a beautifully vivid reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. Judah comes forward and expresses deep remorse and anguish over the pain he and his brothers caused in tossing a young Joseph into a pit, and offers himself as a slave in place of Benjamin in order to spare his family any further pain. Joseph, now a powerful man in the Egyptian hierarchy, is unable to contain himself, and finally reveals his identity to his brothers. They weep, they hug, they kiss. Joseph forgives them completely, even saying that God, not his brothers, had thrown him into a pit so he could later save his family’s lives – even though they nearly killed him, sold him off as a slave, and told their father he was dead. We come away wondering if there’s hope for the rest of us.
Perhaps, as we read these chapters and recovered from family holiday events, it was divine timing that took the most famous mother-daughter team since Garland-Minelli away from us within 24 hours of each other. The Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds danced her way into our hearts and never let go. Princess Carrie proved that the pen is mightier than the light-saber. From that pen, we learned probably much more than we deserved about a most turbulent mother-daughter dynamic, complicated by stardom, drugs and mental illness. I may or may not learn tonight (on HBO: “Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher”) whether the young princess shared Joseph’s brothers’ fratricidal fantasies. It matters more that these two very strong-willed and adversarial women loved each other more than anything; were each other’s neighbors until the end of their lives. Their souls were bound one to another, as Judah admitted about the bond between his father Jacob and brother Benjamin. If he lost Benjamin, it would kill him. Debbie did lose Carrie, and it killed her.
For better or worse, our souls are bound to the souls of our families. Even our exes, to a degree. It’s been 10 years now since my ex and I split up. It’s never easy to navigate such a relationship when kids and finances are involved. But it’s vitally important to recognize that, for better or worse, our souls are bound. You can’t just erase a 15 year marriage from your memory.
For a while I was serving on a beit din, or rabbinic court, to effectuate gittin, or Jewish divorce writs. The laws of gittin are as maddenly complex as the family dynamics they reflect. Both baalei simcha, or ‘rejoicing couple’ as they are facetiously termed, are required to consent to the divorce proceeding, but they need not meet or even talk with each other. Each baal simcha may appoint an agent – say, me – to effectuate the document on one’s behalf. The members of the beit din inspect the document drawn up with ink and quill by a trained scribe, and we sign our Hebrew names on the bottom, also with ink and quill, followed by the word “witness.” The ink is given time to dry, and then the m’sadder gittin folds it twice into thirds. The female ex, or her agent if she is not present, takes the document into her hand and walks about 4 paces with it. The document is then given back to the beit din and archived. The baalei simcha are issued but a receipt attesting that the document – and the divorce – has been effectuated.
In most of the Jewish divorce cases, neither party appeared before the beit din. In some cases, the ex-husband appeared, in others, the ex-wife appeared. In not a single Jewish divorce case did I witness both present. Except one: my own.
Familiar as I was with the process through my own incomplete traiting as a m’sadder gittin, I felt compelled to ask my ex to appear with me so I could hand her the get with my own hands. Our Sages counsel us that just as Jewish marriages need to be k’dat moshe v’yisrael, according to the laws of Moses and Israel, so should Jewish divorces (along with the prevailing laws of the state). I recalled that my divorced parents together walked me down the aisle towards the wedding canopy. I learned from them that post-marriage life is not easy, but common ground must be sought for the health of both parties, not to mention the children! My ex kindly agreed. I stood in front of her, handed her the get, and said “you are hereby permitted to any man.” Funny, I thought, she wasn’t asking my permission, and the beit din really decides that, not me. But it was a healing experience to let the words pass through my mouth. At that moment I let go of the dynamics that felled our marriage. I was ready to start a new chapter in our relationship. We’ve since shared lots of celebrations together, and she and her new husband have occasionally welcomed me as a house-guest. Scars apparently do heal over time.
I hope there will come a time when my ex and I walk our children down the aisle towards the chuppah. And I do believe with perfect faith that whatever has happened to me in my life – good or bad – was to preserve and create the life God meant for me to live. Shavua Tov.