If the Torah is like a crown to the Jewish people, then the Joseph story, which occupies a hallowed place in the narrative of Genesis, is the Torah’s crown jewel. The story is brilliantly told; dramatically rendered in complex detail; and in many regards, represents the apotheosis of the Book of Genesis’ revolt against primogeniture.
Birth order and sibling rivalry is one of the through-lines of Genesis. Cain slays Abel; Ishmael makes sport of Isaac; Esau sells his birthright to Jacob. Then there is Joseph, who wears the pride and self-satisfaction of his coat-of-many-colors and provokes the murderous rage of his brothers, is sold into slavery, rises to power in Egypt and in this week’s parshah, Va-Yigash, effectuates a healing reconciliation with his siblings and brings to an end self-inflicted family pain of sibling rivalry. In the face of this ancient tradition which permeated Near Eastern culture at the time, ancient Judaism’s inherent iconoclasm posited a different worldview: that wit, intelligence and dogged persistence toward a goal ought to be the driver of Jewish continuity.
Upending primogeniture is not Judaism’s only iconoclasm. The Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, in his important book Understanding Genesis, shows how concise word usage in the creation myth alluded to other Mesopotamian gods being supplanted through literary devices by the one God, Creator of the Universe. Paganistic polytheism as represented by Tiamat, Goddess of the Sea, is brought to her knees in one sweep of the Divine spirit hovering over the waters of the deep. Or consider when Abraham is called by God to “go forth” from his “land, birthplace, and father’s house” to a land God will show him, the Midrash brings to bear the story of Abraham smashing his father’s clay idols. This prompts the rabbis to suggest that the reason God chose Abraham on this special mission was because he was an idol-smasher from his youth. A breaker of rules.
It is in this context that we understand the brilliance of Joseph’s story. Because after all the machinations required to get Joseph to Egypt, to witnessing his rise to power, to the trickery he himself deploys to teach his brothers a lesson, and then the great reveal of his identity to them and the sense of family reconciliation, we experience the Torah closing this chapter of history. Here, privilege of birth-status is no longer the supreme value in a family and leadership is determined not by the color of one’s coat, to quote a phrase, but by the content of one’s character.
The family unites in Egypt to be sure; but as we know, rather ominously, a new pharaoh will arise in Egypt who “knows not Joseph” and the calamity of slavery will fall upon the nation of the Jews. It will be four hundred years of suffering before we are freed in the Exodus. The rabbis in the Midrash teach us, rather pointedly, that it was because of sibling rivalry that we were once slaves in Egypt. It’s how we got there. A moral reckoning for future generations.
“On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from Egypt,” the Torah teaches in Exodus 19, the Jewish people journeyed in the Sinai desert. There, near Mount Sinai, moments before the Torah was given, God said, “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.”
A kingdom of priests. A holy nation. Read through the lens of the Genesis narrative, this is not triumphal chauvinism; rather, it is a radical re-writing of the social order. It is Jewish civilization positing that what makes a kingdom is the righteous behavior of leaders, who in turn inspire the entire nation to holiness and deeds of lovingkindness. Judaism’s call for exceptionalism, for making real the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and to “care for the widow and orphan and stranger in our midst,” and to “seek peace, pursue it” are the covenanted responsibility of us all.
Whether we are turning the pages of Torah, or the year 2020, let us renew our days by choosing life and blessing, each of us as responsible as the other in a nation of many that in fact is fundamentally, one.