Family Relationships

Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Shabbat Mevarekhim Hahodesh
Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD

Sol & Anne Distinguished Professor in Philosophy, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
University Rector, American Jewish University

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD is AJU’s Rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy. He is Chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and served on the editorial committee of Etz Hayim, the new Torah commentary for the Conservative Movement. He has chaired four scholarly organizations: the Academy of Jewish Philosophy, the Jewish Law Association, the Society of Jewish Ethics, and the Academy of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies. He was elected Honorary President of the Jewish Law Association for the term of 2012-2016.  In Spring 1993, he served on the Ethics Committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force. In March 1997 and May 1999, he testified on behalf of the Jewish tradition on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the President's National Bioethics Advisory Commission. In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the Surgeon General’s commission to draft a Call to Action for Responsible Sexual Behavior; and from 2000 to 2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines for protecting human subjects in research projects. Rabbi Dorff is also a member of an advisory committee for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the social, ethical, and religious implications of their exhibits. He is also a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee for the state of California on stem cell research.

He has been an officer of the FaithTrust Institute, a national organization that produces seminars and educational materials to help people avoid or extricate themselves from domestic violence.  For eight years he was also been a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, chairing its committee on serving the vulnerable.  In Los Angeles, he is a Past President of Jewish Family Services and a member of the Ethics committee at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. He serves as Co-Chair of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.  

posted on December 14, 2014
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading
Maftir Reading

In a commentary on Miketz written in 1996, Dr. Jo Milgrom asked her readers to engage in a revealing experiment:


Try this: start with Genesis 43:19 and read to the end of the chapter, 15 verses. Count the number of time any close family relationship is mentioned. I count thirty-four incidents of father, son, lad, brother, child, wife, mother, including love "him" in verse 20 and the phrase "His soul was bound up with his soul" in verse 30. In this manner, averaging twice in a verse, and with that key motif ein, einenu, "He is gone" occurring four times, Judah hammers away, repeating the anguished tale of a rent family fabric yearning to be mended, healed, made even better than it was at the beginning. [1]  


Dr. Milgrom points out also that the root of the Hebrew word 'ah, brother, is 'ahoh (aleph-het-heh), meaning to stitch together, mend, heal the breach. [2]Brothers - and, by extension, all family members are supposed to be there to support each other, to mend whatever tears happen in a family member's life, and to stitch the family together over and over again as each member of the family faces the vicissitudes of life.

Families, however, do not always function that way - and the many dysfunctional families in Genesis are good examples of that. On the contrary, precisely because family relationships are so close, people can and do rub up against each other in ways more frequent and more hurtful than what happens in most other relationships - more frequent because of the constant interactions that often characterize family relationships, and more hurtful because one expects, or at least hopes for, warm and supportive ties with the members of one's family, and when that does not happen, it hurts all the more because of the dashed expectations and hopes.

I know of several families, including my own, in which a perceived slight that occurred decades ago severs a family relationship despite the attempts of other family members to mend it. My parents, who lived in Milwaukee, visited my aunt (my father's sister) and uncle in Cleveland for two weeks in the month before my cousin died of cancer in order to do what they could to comfort and support them in that trying time. When he ultimately died, they just could not return to Cleveland for the funeral and burial, which involved a day's travel by car in each direction as well as time off from work for my father and from school for my sister and me. Ever since then, my aunt would not talk to my parents. My father, in the meantime, felt that my aunt should have appreciated the fact that my parents, my sister, and I were with her, my uncle, and my other cousins in that family in the weeks before the cancer took its toll and should have understood that to return to Cleveland just a week later would be difficult. In subsequent years my cousins and I tried several times to mend their sibling relationship, but to no avail. My aunt and father died, never having reconciled. Both felt wronged by the other, and their growing up together and supporting each other through some hard times during World War I in Europe and then the adjustment to life in America were not enough to overcome the hurt on both sides generated by this one incident. Unfortunately, my family's story is not true of us alone, for, as I said above, I know of several families with similar unfortunate stories, and I am sure that they are not the only ones.

So in this week of Miketz, may the story of the reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers be a model for us about the importance of family relationships - so important that we dare not let slights that commonly occur in such relationships destroy them. Instead, we must work to become close family members again in the etymological meaning of the Hebrew word for brother by mending any breach in our family relationships and, conversely, by continually doing those things that will stitch our family relationships ever tighter and stronger.

Shabbat shalom.