In his novel Anna Karenina, Tolstoy writes: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The principle so aptly encapsulated by this aphorism has enjoyed a long and varied career from ecology to ethics to mathematics, and might be expressed in this way: A successful endeavor can be defined by the presence of a number of essential factors, the absence of any one of which will inevitably lead to failure. Or to put it another way: There is only one way to succeed, but there are an infinite number of ways to fail.
Viewed in this way, the saga of Israel and his offspring could provide us with an extensive catalog of different ways for a family to be unhappy. Although the patriarchal narratives keep returning over and over again to the same basic theme of jealousy and fraternal conflict, this conflict assumes a rich variety of different forms as it recurs throughout the book of Genesis — enough variety, perhaps, to prove Tolstoy right.
Of course, there is some truth to the assertion that one person’s experience of pain is necessarily unique and impossible to compare with that of any other’s. The circumstances surrounding Jacob and Esau’s struggle for paternal recognition are essentially different from those which motivate Joseph’s brothers to cast him into a pit and then sell him off as a slave to a passing merchant caravan. And yet the underlying issues of parental favoritism and mutual resentment are similar enough to call into question the particularity of this suffering. Is it not the universality of this suffering, the ways in which it echoes circumstances in our own families or those of people we’ve known, that calls out to us and draws forth our sympathy for the ancestors of our people?
It is interesting to note that the Zohar’s discussion of the problem of evil in relation to this parsha tackles the issue from a position that is very nearly the opposite of Tolstoy. Riffing off of a passage from Kohelet which reads “Better a child who is poor but wise than a king who is old and foolish, who no longer knows to take care” (Kohelet 4:13), Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai interprets the “child who is poor but wise” to be the yetzer ha-tov, the good impulse, while the “king who is old and foolish” is the evil impulse, the yetzer ha-ra. The good impulse is like a child, Rabbi Shimon states, because like the moon the impulse to good is “constantly renewing itself” whereas the evil impulse is “old” in the sense that from the day it came into being it entered into a state of impurity and never came out again.
In other words, for Rabbi Shimon what characterizes goodness is not its sameness but rather its capacity to constantly make itself anew, repairing what has been broken, strengthening what has become weak, and adapting to the current circumstances. Evil, on the other hand, is characterized by a dreary sameness, a stubborn determination to remain forever mired in the same old swamp of impurity. The superficial variety of unhappiness is revealed to be a series of masks covering over the same set of problems, where as the apparent sameness of happiness is belied by the ongoing process of renewal and adaptation that is necessary to maintain it.
Caught up in the ongoing churn of dramatic incidents and interpersonal conflicts, Jacob and his family have trouble recognizing that their difficulties, as many and as varied as they are, ultimately spring from a relatively static set of interpersonal issues which have haunted this family from its earliest days. Seduced by the idea that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” they fail to see the ways in which the apparent variety of their circumstances masks an inability — or unwillingness — to make a change in the fixed patterns which have dominated their lives. In the end, on the other side of Joseph’s exile from his family and his brothers’ grief and regret, the only way out of the mire of this family cycle will be something Jacob and Esau were ultimately unable to attain — the capacity to repair what has been broken, to renew the bonds of a shattered relationship.