Before there was a Jewish People, there was a Jewish family, and what a family it was.
It started with Abraham, who had marital strife caused by a jealous wife, parenting problems because his sons didn’t get along and he favored one over the other, and issues with his nephew Lot, who got in with a bad crowd in Sodom and Gomorrah.
And it continued with Isaac and Jacob and their wives and offspring, who had numerous disputes, some of them outlined in such detail that we are left to wonder whether our patriarchs and matriarchs were part of a dysfunctional family.
Welcome (back) to Genesis, as the annual cycle of Torah readings begin again this weekend, and we are back
to Creation, literally. Not an illogical place to start, right? But Rashi, the legendary biblical commentator, famously notes that perhaps the Torah, being the story of the Jewish People and not the history of the world, should begin with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, as told in Exodus.
He suggests that God chose to begin with Creation, though, to strengthen the Jewish claim to Israel as, indeed, the Promised Land — as in, promised to the Jews. Since God created the whole world, Rashi says, He has the right to apportion it according to His will, and He chose to give Israel to the Jewish people. “This precludes counterclaims based on conquest or history,” Rashi asserts.
Would that it were so, and that advocates for Zionism need only cite biblical passages to convince doubters that the Jews have a right to the Holy Land that goes back to beginning of history.
Reading the Torah is like reading a love story (albeit not a conventional one) between God and the Israelites, who at times fear and worship Him and more often seem to raise the Divine temper by casting aside His commandments. But as in most families, for all the friction, harsh words (and even threats), in the end the bond holds and the relationship continues.
Still, for a family saga, there are an awful lot of R-rated sections, ranging from incest (Lot and his daughters) to rape (Jacob’s daughter Dina) to bloodshed. Indeed, the relationship between the first two siblings on earth, Cain and Abel, ends in murder.
What does that have to tell us about human nature?
A great deal, and that is why even though we repeat the story every year, reading a Torah portion each week, we can also find fresh meanings if we are willing to probe and reflect.
From the outset we are struck by the difference between the Torah and the holy books of other religions.
In Christianity, as evidenced by The New Testament, Jesus is perfect — indeed a Divine being on earth. In Judaism, by contrast, our greatest heroes, from Abraham and Sarah to Moses to Miriam to King David, are real flesh and blood, with remarkable accomplishments as well as human flaws. Some fudge the truth, some are prone to jealousy or gossip, and others to lust. To the Torah’s credit, those flaws and foibles are neither omitted nor glossed over. They are part of the narrative, just as they are part of every human experience, and that makes the Biblical characters all the more exemplary and their stories more compelling because they are real.
One lesson here is that we need not strive for perfection because that is an impossible goal, but rather to do right, as best we can, as often as we can, and to pray for forgiveness when we sin.
Most striking about the Book of Genesis is the strife that takes place within each family we meet, much of it due to jealousy, sibling rivalry and parental favoritism.
Abraham has two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, but Isaac clearly is the one he loves most.
Isaac, when he is old and blind, has a soft spot for Esau, the hunter, rather than Jacob, the righteous scholar. (Some commentators suggest that Isaac’s blindness is not physical, but refers to his inability to see Esau for the crude man of the fields that he is.)
And Jacob, who goes on to father 12 sons, overtly favors Joseph, giving him a splendid coat of many colors. It is this favoritism, and Joseph’s flaunting it, that tears the family apart, resulting in Joseph being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers.
But remarkably, having seen how parental partiality can almost destroy a family, Jacob does not seem to learn from his own lesson when, as an old man, he again favors his youngest, Benjamin, and then chooses to give his most prized blessing to Joseph’s younger son, Ephraim, rather than the older sibling, Menashe.
No doubt parenting was far different in biblical times, when the first-born son received most of the inheritance and women had few rights, than today. But is the notion of loving each of one’s children fully and equally merely a modern Western concept?
What’s remarkable is that the nature of family strife described in the Torah is eternal, and contemporary. Esau’s bitterness against brother Jacob begins when Jacob cons him into selling him the all-important birthright in a moment of weakness. Their encounter over a bowl of lentil soup calls to mind a memorable scene in the 1990 Barry Levinson film, “Avalon,” a story of three generations of an American Jewish family, when one of the uncles in the Krichinsky family comes late to the Thanksgiving dinner and storms out after complaining, “you didn’t wait to cut the turkey?!”
Family ties have been torn asunder over such matters for countless generations. Is that a comfort, as in “misery loves company,” or reason for despair and dismay?
Either way, it’s all there in the Torah. Another reminder that the ancient text still lives and breathes.