This month our weekly Torah portions place us deep into the heart of the Book of Genesis. Genesis, for the most part, relates the very beginnings of Judaism. It recounts the stories of our ancestors through the first four generations of Israelites. We might like to believe that these founders of Judaism lived lives that were entirely devoted to God’s path. We might expect that history would record only their shining moments, those times when they behaved with the best intentions and exhibited the ideals of our religion. We might hope to read that our ancestors were always righteous, always kind, always perfect… but this is not what the Book of Genesis details.
Our ancestors, on the whole, are depicted as righteous individuals, but they are far from perfect. They are, after all, simply human. They make mistakes, lash out in anger, hold grudges. They fall prey to the same failings we all share, and this is precisely why we can relate to them. In every generation, the family members struggle with one another. They fight amongst themselves, vie for attention, feel that their parents show undue favor to one over the other. They even threaten each other with death. Ishmael, we are told, hates Isaac, Esau hates Jacob, the ten older brothers hate Joseph.
And yet, whenever it counts most, the families are able to look past their differences. They forgive each other, protect each other, love each other. How many of us have strained relationships within our families? It’s all too common to have family members who don’t speak to one another because of some perceived hurt or some old argument. Except in the most severe cases of abuse or neglect, however, there is little reason to hold such grudges.
Regarding our families the Torah teaches, “Honor your father and your mother,” and “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” The first lesson is repeated in the Ten Commandments, while the second comes from a section of Torah known as the Holiness Code. The Talmud suggests that the observance of each of these commandments is as important as the reverence we should show to God.
Despite their history our ancestors all eventually reconcile with one another. Ishmael and Isaac come together to bury their father, Abraham. Esau and Jacob embrace each other and weep on the other’s shoulder after years of separation. Joseph and his brothers are reunited in Egypt where they forgive all that has occurred between them.
Throughout the book of Genesis, family plays a central role. Even to this day, we remind ourselves that we are the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah. Family forms the binding thread that connects us to each other, to our religion, and to God.
Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik.
May our families be strong and may they strengthen us all.