December 15th, 2021
By Alex Weisz
In this week’s parsha, the book of Genesis concludes with the respective deaths of Jacob and Joseph. With the entire clan of Israelites settled in Egypt, Jacob blesses – and for a few, curses – his sons in recognition of his looming death. In some ways, this is the first example of prophecy akin to the late prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Micah, where the prophet speaks divine truth about the fate of particular individuals or groups. Following their father’s death, Joseph reassures his brothers that he will not seek revenge on them even with their father unable to witness it. Some time later, Joseph passes away, concluding the book of Genesis with all of the Israelites now located in Egypt living as a growing clan working as shepherds in the region of Goshen.
Twelve weeks into the annual Torah reading cycle, having concluded the first of the five books of the Torah, it is worth asking: what have we learned so far? In so many ways, Bereshit or Genesis is the quintessential book of the Torah – and in many other ways, it is radically different than any of the following four. So many legendary biblical narratives take place that it is hard to keep track of them all! From the creation of the world to the flood through each of the three Patriarchs all the way to Joseph’s ascent to power in Egypt and the young Israelite nation relocating to join him, unaware of their impending enslavement, it contains so many important events and people. Whereas the remaining four books of the Torah span a few decades, Genesis spreads centuries! Whereas the remaining four books are full of the commandments foundational to Jewish life, Genesis is largely void of them.
Rabbinic literature is largely divided into two main genres: halacha, explicit legal writings, and aggadah, narratives that teach ideas, priorities, and attitudes through parables and other literary devices. It would be absurd to suggest that the Sages were not directly influenced by the way these two genres exist in the biblical texts as well, with Genesis being almost exclusively aggadah. The fifty chapters of Genesis are rich with foundational narratives that can guide the reader’s attitudes and approaches towards numerous subjects. However, there are a handful of key topics, highlighted through repetition, that are particularly poignant in our time.
First and foremost, humanity’s purpose is to tend to nature, as is declared by God upon creating humans. While the exact word used is “to rule” over nature, we understand the kind of rulership intended by the chosenness of the Abrahamic line, beginning with the hospitable and giving Abraham and Sarah, and their immediate descendants, also humble shepherds. As opposed to the hunters Ishmael and Esau, it is through the humble and quiet Issac and Jacob through which the covenant with G-d is continued. Later biblical texts emphasize the importance of humility combined with righteousness and justice, particularly within leadership12 , which should guide human stewardship of the world, rather than domination and destruction. Though humanity was banished from Eden, the punishment given was the difficulty of agriculture – nowhere does God retract this duty. If anything, God reinforces this notion following the flood in the covenant with Noah.3 Though contemporary readers may be uncomfortable with the notion of increasing Divine frustration over humanity’s shortcomings, it is clear from human history that we have largely failed in this respect – and know exactly what we can do to steer ourselves on the proper course of conduct in our relationship with nature. Rejection of disposable, single-use plastics that poison our water supply and literally trash our planet; the severe reduction, if not outright elimination of fossil fuels and animal foodstuffs; placing climate policy at the top of our political priorities in our democracy are imperative. These are the major steps that we as individuals can take to ensure that we are living up to our intended purpose in this world.
Secondly, we see an environmental emergency in each major narrative of Genesis. This begins with Adam’s punishment upon exile from Eden, that agriculture will require hard work in order to produce food to eat.4 In Noah’s time, we read about the flood. Several generations later, we read about the respective famines experienced by Abraham and Sarah, then by Isaac and Rebecca, and then by Jacob and his sons. We see a few different approaches in response to these famines, nevertheless we should follow in the footsteps of Abraham, Rebecca, and Joseph – responding quickly and comprehensively to attend to the needs of others, particularly those most affected by the circumstances.
Finally, in each generation we witness one, if not multiple instances of familial tensions. Following the tragedy of Cain murdering Abel, we witness tensions between brothers, starting with Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. Similar tensions exist between sister-wives Rachel and Leah, Abraham and his nephew Lot, and Jacob with his cousin/father-in-law Laban. In some instances, there is blame to pass around, while others are caused by surrounding circumstances. Nevertheless, in nearly all of these examples,
Genesis bombards readers with the idea that, despite the complexities of family dynamics, besides in cases of severe abuse and trauma, there is room for reconciliation. This idea is all the more powerful when considering that Genesis is very explicit in its notion that all of humanity is one large, messy family, originating with Adam and Eve. The Rabbis of the Talmud observe5 that this was done in order to prevent anyone from claiming that one person’s ancestors are greater than another person’s – everyone descends from the same original people, making us all family. Therefore, Genesis teaches us that we must be willing to see one another in the light of family and to use its guidance to make peace. Whereas Joseph was able to reunite and live alongside his brothers, Abraham and his nephew Lot agree to go their separate ways in peace, as do Jacob and Laban. Regardless of the method, Genesis urges us to recognize peace is achievable and necessary, whereas the slaughter of one’s brother, originating with Cain’s murder of Abel, is an abomination. Even the righteous retaliatory rampage of Simeon and Levi towards the kin of their sister’s rapist6 result in their being chastised and cursed by their father on his deathbed.7
Despite the lack of a single explicit mitzvah, or Divine command, Genesis has some of the most important pieces of wisdom for us today. With an entire continent aflame, the timeless wisdom of Genesis is as relevant as ever! Upon finishing a book of the Torah, traditionally the phrase hazak, hazak, venit hazek is exclaimed, meaning “Be strong! Be strong! And may we all be strengthened!” With the teachings of gentle stewardship of the world, open-hearted generosity, and compassionate peacemaking fresh in our minds, we can move forward to the book of Exodus with a clear understanding of what it means to truly be strong.
Hazak, hazak, venit hazek!