I often hear from families in turmoil. Sometimes it is children estranged from parents. At other times it is siblings at war over inheritances. As a result of disagreements, families separate emotionally and even geographically. Where can we find the wisdom to cope with family estrangement?
Stories of families that disassemble are not unique to modern times. In parshat Lech L’cha, a family splits up to end a conflict. When their herds compete for land, Abraham (then known as Abram) offers his nephew Lot the choice of moving his flocks in any direction Lot might choose. Lot opts for the well-watered plains of Jordan. Abraham heads the other direction toward the desert. Abraham demonstrated laudable characteristics of equanimity and steadfastness.
Later, Lot is taken prisoner by warring kings of the region. An escapee from the battles brings the news to Abraham. Abraham gathers allies and comes to Lot’s rescue. And then Lot returns to his home in Sodom.
Despite their earlier differences, Abraham was quick to cross the divide between them and come to Lot’s rescue. With his response to Lot’s capture, Abraham demonstrated additional traits of allegiance and courage.
Abraham appears to have coped well with the psychological pain of his family’s estrangement. Even though he got the short end of the bargain, Abraham contained his resentment. Abraham separated from Lot without rancor and in generosity. While he could have remained aggrieved, he nevertheless fought to release Lot from his captivity.
And yet Abraham can’t be an unconditional guarantor for Lot. There is a limit to family loyalty. Some differences are insurmountable. Some wounds are too deep. Some mistakes made are beyond rescue. And when Lot is later assailed in his home in Sodom, angels and not Abraham come to his aide. Lot and Abraham are not reunited again.
There will be more family estrangements. The next instance reported is when Abraham expelled his son Ishmael. In that instance, Abraham relied upon his faith to overcome his anguish. Only upon Abraham’s death will Ishmael return to the land of his birth.
While we cannot always avoid family estrangements, we will have opportunities to consider if not control our own reactions. We might not be able to preserve a relationship but we can pursue self-control to protect ourselves from further emotional harm. It just takes some grounding and spiritual vitality.
Torah offers a worthy lesson for those of us who experience difficult relationships with relatives. Sometimes we must go separate ways from family. If we can do so without acrimony, we will better sustain ourselves and perhaps leave the door open for reconciliation in the future.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame