From Adam to Joseph: Understanding Genesis
What Is The Mission Of The Children Of Israel?
In Parshat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26) we close up the book of Genesis, so it's a good time to pause and ask: What is the central message of the Book of Genesis? How do we understand the core lessons that the Book of Genesis teaches?
After all, we've spent weeks delving into the many different stories of deception and favoritism. How did the children of Israel come so far from the ideal nation set up by Abraham? What happened to the family that was supposed to model justice and kindness to the rest of the world? How can we, Am Israel, redeem ourselves by not repeating our ancestors' mistakes?
In this video, we take a step back to look at the Book of Genesis as a whole in order to better understand the hidden messages that we are meant to take away.
David: Welcome to Parshat Vayechi, the very last parsha in the book of Genesis.
Immanuel: Over the last 13 weeks, we've explored the book of Genesis week by week, parsha by parsha. As the book of Genesis draws to a close with Vayechi, in classic Parsha Experiment fashion, we want to zoom out and look at these pieces as part of a larger story.
Understanding the Book of Genesis
Immanuel: In the beginning of Genesis, God sets Abraham up to become a model nation. Abraham is chosen to represent God and God's values, with the hope of spreading them around the world. As the book unfolds we meet his son Isaac and [grandson] Jacob, who struggle to model these values and continue their father's legacy.
The book that starts with the righteousness of Abraham and the kindness of Isaac and Rebecca unravels; and by the end of Genesis, things seem to have fallen apart. We see deception after deception.
What happened to God's chosen people? What happened to the family that was supposed to model justice and kindness to the rest of the world?
David: We want to take you on a journey back through Genesis only now looking at the book as a whole. Join us this week on the Parsha Experiment.
David: Hi, I'm David Block.
Immanuel: And I'm Imu Shalev
David: And welcome to the Parsha Experiment. Before we recap Genesis, let's first see what's in our parsha with the 20-second parsha recap.
- Before Jacob dies, he makes Joseph promise that he'll bury him in Canaan
- Joseph brings his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, to meet their grandfather Jacob, and Jacob blesses them.
- Jacob then gives a blessing to all of his children
- Jacob dies, and Pharaoh sends a grand procession to accompany Jacob's body back to Canaan
- After Jacob dies, the brothers fear that Joseph will take revenge for the sale… but Joseph reassures them
- At the age of 110, Joseph dies.
Immanuel: Because the Jacob and Joseph stories – which we have been entrenched in for the last six weeks – are riddled with deception, it's easy to forget that they are part of a larger story. They are part of a larger family charged with a divine mission to become a model nation.
It's even harder to remember that this model family is really plan C, after Plan A and Plan B fail in the first two parshiot of Genesis. Plan A is just a flash in the pan, covering the first three chapters of Genesis.
The First Main Message in Genesis
Immanuel: The Torah begins with the creation of the universe culminating in the creation of mankind. God lovingly places humanity in a special garden, a place in which humanity and God could really live together. Plan A is the ideal world, it's paradise.
David: Paradise, however, is contingent on following just one rule: this whole garden is yours to eat from, except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Staying away from that tree affirms that humanity understands that God is the objective decider of good and evil. When Adam and Eve eat from the tree we learn that our perspective of good is really subjective and tainted by our desires.
Immanuel: God had wanted humanity to enjoy the world but in the context of a relationship with Him. Once humanity attempts to determine good and evil for themselves, they betray this special relationship with God and are kicked out of the garden.
The distance between humankind and God only gets worse in the next generation when Cain takes good and evil into his own hands and ends the life of another human – his brother – moving humanity farther away from God. The book of Genesis opens with humanity's two great sins – against God, and against one another.
The Second Message of Genesis
David: Eventually, humanity drifts so far away, that God regrets having made the world and chooses to recreate it with a flood. God decided to begin anew – Plan B. In this new world God still wants a relationship with people; now God generously allows them to learn from their mistakes.
God now accepts and embraces humankind's humanity instead of punishing them for it. This new relationship is paradoxical: instead of holding on tighter, God lets go and lets humanity find its way back to Him. Plan B doesn't work out either.
Immanuel: The Tower of Babel shows us that humanity continues to focus solely on themselves – ונעשה לנו שם, let's make our own name great. Humanity completely removes God from the picture. The plan that was supposed to bring humanity closer to God ultimately creates more distance.
The Third Message of Genesis
David: Finally Plan C is hatched: creating a model nation… a people that would embody God's values and model them to the rest of the world. God chooses Abraham to model a relationship with Him. Abraham builds towers, too – he succeeds where others have failed – and builds towers for God; he calls out in God's name.
He is a master of kindness, and learns that his role as a righteous person is to be an influencer. Though he is incredibly close with God, we learn in the Sodom narrative that Abraham is expected to invite others into that intimate relationship. Over and over again we hear about how through Abraham and the nation that he founds, blessing will reach the entire world.
Immanuel: As amazing as Abraham is, he and Sarah can't become a nation by themselves. In order to be a model nation he needs others to continue the legacy after him. Enter Isaac and Rebecca. In Chayei Sarah we meet Rebecca and see her act with kindness, in a place devoid of good values making her the perfect person to continue Abraham's legacy.
In Toldot, we see that after a few struggles Isaac learns from the past and becomes the perfect progenitor of his father's mission. Eventually, Isaac and Rebecca need the legacy to continue to the next generation, so that legacy can grow into that model nation... which brings us to their son Jacob.
Understanding What Is the Message of Genesis?
David: What happened? Everything seemed to be working out so nicely. If the Bible wanted to make us feel bad, it would be a perfect story of perfect people with perfect families and perfect lives.
But instead, the Torah chooses to show us the struggle of morality. This family who is meant to model morality ends up picking favorites and selling a brother into slavery? Though it feels like we are entrenched in deception, Genesis doesn't end with deception, it ends with reconciliation. Joseph himself so beautifully articulates this at the end of parsha, closing the book of Genesis.
After the death of Jacob, Joseph's brothers worry that he will finally seek revenge for selling him into slavery. They throw themselves at Joseph's mercy and offer themselves as slaves. Joseph breaks down and cries, he finally responds: ?אַל-תִּירָאוּ: כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים, אָנִי. Don't worry, I'm not going to kill you – for am I to play God?
The Hidden Message of Reconciliation in Genesis
Immanuel: This is a much bigger reconciliation:
It is the reconciliation of Cain killing his brother – playing God and deciding right and wrong. It is the reconciliation of the tower of Babel, where humanity forgot that God the ultimate name, the ultimate controller of the world. And it is a reconciliation for the garden of Eden, for Adam and Eve's fateful mistake of thinking they decide good and evil.
And that theme – of humans trying to determine good and evil – continues to play out in Bereishit through favoritism. When someone feels that they are unfavored, that they deserve more than they are getting, in reality they are deciding what is just and unjust, what is good and what is evil.
Though Joseph gets caught up in this favoritism, he is able end to the cycle and step outside his own view of right and wrong. Joseph throws it back to God. וְאַתֶּם, חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה; אֱלֹהִים, חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה, "I don't make these choices, to take venegance, to determine what is right and what is wrong."
Understanding Genesis: What It Means to Be Am Yisrael, Children of Israel
David: This is what the book is about, this is what it means to be Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel. Israel represents the journey of the struggle of Jacob, כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל… you struggled with God, and with people, and prevailed. It's only once we've achieved this on a small scale that we are ready to take on this challenge on a national scale.
Joseph's statement is the culmination of a book-long struggle; the book that began with the tension of humans determining good and evil, ends with another question of good and evil, only this time, we get it right.
What does Joseph do? He rewards his brothers. Cain asked השומר אחי אנוכי? Am I my brother's keeper? Joseph tells us YES, we are our brother's keepers! He straightens things out with his brothers – they are the fix in a long chain of deceit, error, and struggle. Joseph and his brothers show us that the only way to heal, to mend, to grow, is to realize that relationships, families, are not about a game of right and wrong. God alone is the decider of good and evil. Our job is not to determine morality, but to follow God's map for morality. Be kind to one another. Be a positive impact on the world.
Immanuel: But the story has only just begun. Join us next week as we venture from this family to the bigger family of nationhood in Parshat Shmot…on the Parsha Experiment.