A couple of weeks ago, my children were off from school, and they decided to have a family movie night. I usually skip these and get some work done, but my children persuaded me to join them on the couch. I gave in, but of course, I decided that whatever it was we were going to watch was going to be made into a sermon.
They decided to watch Encanto, which I thought was perfect. I was especially excited to learn that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the music – for those of you with a good memory, you may recall that a few years ago, on the Shabbos before Purim, I wrote some Purim-themed lyrics to his music, utterly embarrassing myself in front of you all.
I was excited to do so again.
But there was a problem, two problems actually. The first problem is that it’s kind of a serious movie. I finished the movie and the first thing out of my mouth was, “Wow, that’s a perfect analogy to the Holocaust.” I’m a real killjoy sometimes. My whole family just looked at me like I was crazy, but really, I cannot think of a better analogy to Holocaust survival. We’ll come back to that.
The other problem is that apparently half of you haven’t seen the movie.
Which is kind of awkward. Your rabbi is not supposed to consistently know more pop culture than all of you. You’re making me look bad. You know, maybe you should have gotten a rabbi from YU after all…
Since half of you haven’t seen it, here’s a quick summary. Encanto is a story about a family with superpowers. There is Camilo, he shapeshifts. Then there’s Bruno, he’s like a prophet. But he has problems. Sort of. We won’t be talking about him today… ? There’s Isabela – she’s perfect. Also, sort of. Luisa is super strong, and we’ll be getting back to her later.
The matriarch of this family is a woman by the name of Abuela who holds it all together. Also, sort of. She’s kind of like a Yaakov Avinu type. She’s been through a lot, and she holds – or tries to hold her family together.
Using their superpowers, the family builds up a community around them. Everyone loves them, and they seem to love themselves. But beneath the surface, there are cracks. The house that they live in, which is the center of the town, starts to break. And what that symbolizes is a sense that they’re all buckling under the intense pressure of their superpowers and their overbearing matriarch who is trying desperately to hold it all together.
Like all good movies, there’s a backstory: What brought them to this city and gave them the superpowers was a terribly traumatic event. Abuela, her husband Pedro, and their three infants were on the run from Colombian soldiers who were killing innocent civilians. They were ambushed by these soldiers and Pedro bravely distracted the soldiers to save his family. Tragically, Pedro was murdered by those soldiers in front of his wife’s eyes.
Throughout the movie, Abuela has flashbacks of her husband getting killed. Meanwhile, she tries so hard to hold her family together, to make sure they don’t make any mistakes, to keep them as perfect as possible and never talks about what they went through. Why? Because she’s protecting them.
But her approach causes a lot of dysfunction.
To quote Dr. Dara Greenwood (Four Powerful Lessons from Encanto, Psychology Today): “…Psychologists have studied “legacies of silence” that follow traumatic experiences, such as the many devastating losses Jewish families experienced at the hands of the Nazis in World War II. My own Polish grandmother,” she writes, “escaped from Europe to New York, after the Nazis took Poland and killed her father in the street. In her attempt to escape the pain of her own unimaginable losses, she then failed to truly acknowledge the sudden death of her husband from a heart attack and in doing so, prevented my mother from grieving his loss.”
She continues, “Children are exquisitely attuned to the emotional “rules” of the household and are quick to learn what they are not supposed to know or talk about (Bruno included). They are also motivated to bear up under difficult conditions to protect their parents’ emotional vulnerabilities, just as the family members in Encanto felt pressure to be perfect for their Abuela, who herself was trying to bear up under her own traumatic loss.”
In other words, the impact of trauma is ongoing and expressed in many ways: Children of those who experienced trauma, and even the grandchildren, can inherit certain learned behaviors and sometimes even genetically-influenced characteristics that can cause them to not trust others, to be more susceptible to anger, to be unable to connect to others deeply, and more. (https://www.choosingtherapy.com/intergenerational-trauma/)
There’s a book called, ‘“I love you” They Didn’t Say,’ written by a child of survivors. The title says it all. Many survivors could not bring themselves to say those words, and even more importantly, could not feel those emotions as they were weighed down and held back by guilt. And that gets passed on.
We just read Parshas Zachor – a reminder to destroy this nation called Amaleik. Why? Because they attacked us as we were leaving Egypt four thousand years ago. It’s puzzling. We make such a big deal about it; it’s the only Biblically-mandated Torah reading of the year. And yet, who is Amaleik? They’re gone. It’s ancient history. This nation does not exist anymore.
There are endless apologetic approaches attempting to explain how really, the evil characteristics of Amaleik are still here, and it’s an internal battle within ourselves. Or, there are those who suggest that any nation that is set against the Jewish People assumes the title Amaleik. Otherwise, why else would we still be talking about them?
But the fact that we ask the question betrays a lack of understanding of how human beings work. You know why we still talk about Amaleik? Because we’re still feeling the brunt of their actions. When a group of people, after being enslaved for centuries finally gets freed. And they feel at that moment the warm embrace of a G-d who cares about them, who does everything for them. And then, without warning, for that loving protection to be viciously punctured. For that sense of security to be ripped away by some tribe who randomly, with no reason, comes along and attacks them, that goes deep.
You know why Jews are obsessed with having passports ready at all times? Yes, the Holocaust. But also, progroms. And also, inquisitions. And also, the Romans. All the way back to Amaleik. They’re the ones who first made us so uneasy. So nervous. So neurotic.
When I see a schoolbag on the floor of our shul, you know what the first thing that goes through my mind is – bomb. It’s not just me. Yes, it’s because of Arab terrorists, but it’s also because of Amaleik.
מִלְחָמָ֥ה לַהֹ בַּֽעֲמָלֵ֑ק מִדֹּ֖ר דֹּֽר – A war between G-d and Amaleik, midor dor, from generation to generation. That battle is called intergenerational trauma and we are still picking up the pieces.
In Encanto the children and grandchildren of Abuela push themselves to be perfect; there’s an overcompensation, a need for perfection to ensure that the tragedy doesn’t happen again.
We Jews take pride in the success of those who rebuilt after the Holocaust, and we should take pride. But we have to realize that the success came with a price. It was driven by guilt, it was driven by fear, it was driven by a sense of holding it all together to protect the children. It’s a powerful force, but it could also be destructive.
When we are told to eradicate Amaleik, perhaps what we are meant to do is think deeply about all the “stuff” that we have inherited, the impact of generations of trauma on this nation. We are being asked to acknowledge it, to work through it, and to change it.
We are being asked to learn how to not hold on to all of our emotions, to let our guard down, just a little.
We are being asked to learn how to trust people; to let them into our lives, into our being.
We are being asked to not be driven by so much guilt, but to be driven by love.
And maybe even to say, or whisper, I love you.
One of the characters in the movie is a man by the name, Bruno. As the now-famous song goes, “We don’t talk about Bruno.” The family in Encanto never discusses him. But Bruno’s not just a person. He represents all the flaws, the cracks, the things the family is ashamed of.
It turns out – spoiler alert – that even though they don’t talk about him, and even though they thought he left them decades ago, he’s actually living in the walls of the house. Just like all trauma. Just like all the other things we try to ignore. Not talking about something does not make it go away.
When they finally invite him in, when they finally acknowledge him, the family begins to heal. When we are asked to erase Amaleik by remembering Amaleik, we are doing exactly that. The only way to get past the trauma, the pain, the shame, the guilt, is by acknowledging it. When we do, when we make ourselves vulnerable to our loved ones, acknowledging our fears, our shame, our real self, then we can properly move past Amaleik.
It’s not a coincidence that we remember Amaleik immediately before the most joyous day of the year. When the family acknowledges their flaws and fears, when they acknowledge how they need other people to help them, they are able to rebuild their home. And not surprisingly, it’s far more beautiful than it was before.
As the Kotzker Rebbe once said, there is nothing as whole as a broken heart, or the modern Leonard Cohen version, the cracks are where the light gets in. When we’re brave enough to acknowledge Bruno, to remember Amaleik, to be vulnerable, to recognize our imperfections, that is the pathway to the greatest joy.