The hit television show Succession and traditional Jewish stories paint a similar picture of families torn apart by jealousy, writes RALPH GENENDE.
Family, envy, sibling rivalry, parenting, continuity: these are the themes of the Netflix show Succession.
According to most readings, the show is based on the succession struggles of the Murdoch family. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch’s announcement recently that he is retiring in favour of his son Lachlan may be regarded as its coda but, as in the series, there is always potential for another twist.
There is nothing new about the themes of Succession. Our Torah stories tell the same essential tales: the competition between Abraham’s wives and their respective sons, the rivalry of Jacob and Esau, the favouritism of Joseph that filled his brothers with hate. This, too, is a family drama of triumph and tragedy. Perhaps an Amazon Abraham series will be next.
From Succession and from Torah, I have learned some of the same things.
All families are complicated. They hold us and heal us, protect and support us, but they are also painful and perplexing, challenging and infuriating.
Modern life has changed the definition of family and given it more flexibility but in a society where many other structures have declined, it remains one of the critical frameworks of society, perhaps more important than ever. It is still the strongest force to nurture a sense of self and to create attachment to others.
All those powerful and ambivalent emotions that families evoke remind me of the acute observation of the Latin poet Catullus: “I hate and I love. You may wonder how I manage it. I don’t know but I feel it and am in torment.”
Whether we have a media empire or an ancient tradition to bequeath, the essential challenge is to know what is worth passing on to our children
In both Succession and Torah we see the pain of domestic abuse (Sarah’s abuse of Hagar, Logan’s controlling of his children). When families are dysfunctional, they can cause immense danger. In Australia today, one in six women and one in nine men experienced physical or sexual abuse before the age of 15, and the abuse of adult women remains widespread.
A heart-rending aspect of these stories is the desperation of children for their parents’ approval. Logan manipulates and dismisses his children, scoffing, “You are not serious people.”
His children’s anxious competing for his love reminds me of a subtle reading of the Torah story where Jacob covers his hands with animal skin so he feels like his hairy brother and will receive the blessing his father intends for Esau. “Perhaps my father will touch me (and know),” Jacob tells his mother. These words might be read as, “If only my dad would touch, hold and hug me, then it would be worth being exposed.”
From the story of Abraham and the others in Genesis, which portray envy, sibling rivalry and miscommunication, I also learn hope – Isaac and Ishmael reconcile, and come together at the funeral of their father. Joseph and his brothers find some kind of peace at the end. The triangular relationship of Moses, Aaron and Miriam gives us a model for a fine geometric and empathetic sibling relationship. We might see these as models for reconciliation within our families and also between our fractured tribes, Jewish and Muslim.
If there is one lesson of life worth learning and remembering it is to recognise the power of family. We need to remember that it takes work, love and energy and doggedness to create strong families. We also need to appreciate that not everybody is blessed with a loving and harmonious family, and to reach out to those who lack loving family with empathy and practicality.
For all its challenges, family remains one of the powerhouses of contemporary Jewish life. The gathering that takes place every Friday night regardless of religious commitment of the members, is a highlight of the week for many of us.
The Shabbat song Shalom Aleichem welcomes the Shabbat presence personified as angels into our homes. Shlomo Carlebach suggested that we might also see visiting angels as a model for the children who eventually leave our homes, blessing them when they leave to live with their own lives.
Whether we have a media empire or an ancient tradition to bequeath, the essential challenge is to know what is worth passing on to our children and how to do it so that love triumphs over control, compassion over hubris and connection over self.
We all die. We must all relinquish our possessions and our power. In his eulogy for Logan, brother Ewan acknowledges that Logan’s family loved him “in whatever way he would let us” but observes sadly, “He was a man who was here and there drawn to the edges of the world, now and then darkened the skies a little. Closed men’s hearts. Fed that dark flame in men, the hard mean flame that keeps their heart warm, while another grows cold.’’
Contrast this with the words of the son of the fabled Israeli singer Naomi Shemer, a singer and composer himself. When asked what it was like to grow up in the shadow of such a prominent songwriter, he said: “I did not grow up in her shadow. I grew up in her light.”
Similarly, think about the terrible hubris of billionaire Sheldon Adelson who refused to develop a succession plan, saying, “I’m very alert, I’m vibrant, I have no intention to retire.”
Compare that with Abraham, who accepts his humanity, saying, “I am dust and earth.”
Logan is intoxicated and obsessed by success; Abraham is passionate about succession.
The challenge for us all is to accept the limitations of our fleeting breath and create a legacy, a vision of our influence on earth after we cease to be.