If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.
– George Bernard Shaw
Quarrels. Spats. Estrangement. Infidelity. Abuse. Divorce. Broken hearts. Broken homes.
Family conflict is heartbreaking for a parent, and even more damaging to our children. Innumerable academic and clinical experts tell us it can lead to unhealthy and risky behaviors, poor attachment styles, and persistent patterns of interpersonal struggles into adulthood.
In short? It is a parent’s greatest nightmare. It is the antithesis of all of our most cherished hopes.
It’s a daunting topic, to say the least. The kind of topic we would prefer not to think about. And yet, Jewish wisdom teaches us not to avoid the messy breakdowns of family life. Just look at the tales of our ancestors – the Torah is a chronicle of seething family strife, discord, and sibling rivalries turned murderous. The Jewish path of family-raising is far from tidy.
Jewish wisdom tells us this: We are given conflict in order to grow. When we face the inevitable havoc of raising a family with courage and communication, the dust of the fight settles and an amazing thing happens. We don’t just grow, we grow closer – to each other and to our best selves.
Giving in to the Breakdown
On the Shabbat before our eldest daughter’s bat mitzvah, my family gathered in the living room. The intention was for our daughter to practice the Shabbat service she’d be leading the next week, and for our voices to join in song to support her.
But it was late, and my kids were over-tired and under-fed. The meltdowns began, as I should have known they would. One kid was literally stomping their feet, furious at the attention the bat mitzvah girl was getting. Another kid folded their arms and stubbornly refused to participate. Another wept piteously in a pile outside the door. It was a mess.
Usually, my husband and I are masters at managing the mess. Our meltdown protocols are a well-oiled machine of hushing, shushing, bribing and early bedtimes. We triage the emotional outbursts; pushing forward and keeping it together.
But that night, we didn’t hush or rush or sweep or swoop in for the save. The stress and exhaustion of bat mitzvah planning had hit us, too, and we gave in. We melted down right along with our miserable kids.
It must have lasted a full hour. Everything rose to the surface in floods of tears – the anger, the heartbreaks, the resentments. It was terrifying. But slowly, one child after another gathered in our bedroom. The tears of pain and frustration became tears of surrender, of bewilderment. And then the hugs started. And then the processing, the sharing. The wonder.
One of my kids piped up to share a lightning strike of insight. They had finally recognized a dynamic that had been bothering them since they were three years old – three years old! – and were able to articulate it like never before. Another uncovered a hurt they had been nursing for months, and probably would have held on to forever. Amid the settling dust of our collective meltdown, they could finally share it with us. We held it with love and watched the healing begin.
My children, my husband, and I usually skate placidly along the outer edge of our family issues, avoiding the thin ice at the center. But that night, we were in the middle of the rink, looking directly at the tough stuff that truly needed to be dealt with. Precisely because we were able to confront the cracks, and mend and transform them, we discovered a new connection we didn’t know was possible. Ultimately, we experienced the best possible cliché: a breakdown that turns into a breakthrough.
A week later, my eldest daughter became a bat mitzvah in a glorious ritual. But that one terrible Shabbat was the real mazal tov, the true spiritual turning point. It was equally as exquisite as the pretty party lights, the touching ceremony, and the many blessings yet to come. That night was the new song of the small tribe of our family.
As our bat mitzvah girl said so wisely: “Sometimes you just need to fight it out a little bit more to really love each other.”
Building with the Letter Beit
My family’s meltdown isn’t embarrassing. It wasn’t a parenting failure. Sure, it was scary while it was happening, and I felt helplessly weak to its tide. But in our fear of facing family conflict, we often overlook an essential truth: Our weakness can be one of our greatest strengths.
Yes, having “family issues” feels shameful, unsettling, and scary. Precisely because we treasure our families, the idea of facing those fragilities can feel all the more risky. But allowing space for a healthy expression of negativity can be your family’s superpower. The family who faces their fractures together is the stronger unit. When we know we are safe, accepted, and loved, we can look our issues more squarely in the eye. With our family’s love, we know our issues can’t break us.
To illustrate this, we look to Jewish teachings about the spiritual meaning of the Hebrew letters. Each letter is said to hold its own unique wisdom. The letter beit is particularly poignant because it is related to the Hebrew word bayit – house. Not only does it symbolize the home in its similar sound, but in its written structure as well. Beit is made up of three lines: ב
Those three strokes are viewed as a floor, wall, and a ceiling; the space left over is seen as an open door. A lovely image of a welcoming tent. Yet, in classic literature about beit, it is not merely a cheery open-doored home. It is taught that the open side of the beit faces the north. The sources add that the north represents negativity, quoting Jeremiah: “From the North, the evil will be released upon all the inhabitants of the land.”
Yikes. An unsettling image, to say the least.
However, we can see that the beit’s opening to negativity is not some unfortunate mistake. It is an acknowledgment of a truth that yes, hardships happen – even, and especially, in our homes. Try as we may, our homes are not impenetrable fortresses of warm hugs and happy faces. They are complex systems vulnerable to negative forces that inevitably knock on the door… or just push their way in.
That is the way the beit – and the bayit – are built. Negativity is meant to enter, and to be transformed. Evil can not threaten the structure, because the sturdiness of the floor, the wall, and the ceiling stand strong. When we face our family conflict with courage and commitment, we embody those three solid lines of the beit.
From Beit to Mem
This is not all that the letter beit can teach us. Jewish wisdom goes on to say that when we make an effort to work through negativity, the open, exposed structure of the beit changes. It grows a fourth line to become a new letter, the final mem. The final mem has four lines, sculpted into the shape of a perfect square: ם
In this teaching about the letters is a spiritual truth: a family’s journey through conflict moves them from the exposed beit to the closed, completed mem.
This is beautifully illustrated when we look at the Torah itself – stretching from the written Torah through the many tractates of the Oral Torah. Remarkably, the first letter of the written Torah is the beit of the word bereshit, in the beginning. The last letter of the Oral Torah is the final mem of the word shalom, peace.
The key to completing the beit and turning it into the final mem of shalom is having the courage and care to confront and hold the challenges within your home, and to lovingly and openly communicate with each other about those challenges.
In an ideal world, we are always working toward shalom bayit, peace in the home. Shalom bayit is not a passive state of permanent peace. It is an active process, a moment-to-moment journey of making our fractured families whole. It is our journey to take – from breakdowns to breakthroughs.
Building a Better Bayit: Exercise
- Face the door
Ask yourself, what is a particularly hard challenge that you are currently facing in your home?
- Stand on the floor
In the middle of this conflict what is something sturdy you can stand on? Ground into the abundant positive memories, and the deep love and care at the foundation of your home and family.
- Lean on the wall
Who and what can you lean on for support? Notice the ways in which your family is already supporting each other. If you can, share them out loud with your family. Consider the ways you might build up and utilize your support system – your friends, teachers, therapists, and extended family.
- Look up to the ceiling
What is something you can look forward to? Envision the ways you see your family growing. What does shalom bayit look like to you? Root into that higher vision.
- Complete the final mem
Create the space for your children to share their concerns. Invite them to speak about their pains and frustrations. Set aside defensiveness. Consider everything they say with curiosity, unconditional acceptance, and above all, love.
For a more sophisticated communication tool, check out the Hillel Sandwich tool here.
If your family’s conflicts are especially complex, Momentum recommends doing this type of work in a facilitated setting with a family therapist.
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