One of my favorite movies is Groundhog Day with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. The story is of a cranky, spoiled weatherman sent to cover the festivities in Pauxtawney PA on Groundhog Day. However, he keeps waking up on the same Feb 2, remembering everything from the previous day. No matter what he does, he keeps reliving the day over until he gets it right, and wins the heart of the Andie McDowell character.
I can’t help thinking of Groundhog Day when I think of Genesis. The whole book has a theme which everyone keeps getting wrong, which strings together almost every story. It is not till the very last chapters that Jacob and sons finally get it right. With that, the book concludes.
In every major story in Genesis there is always a story of the preferred son, which always leads to a disaster from other sons. To review:
- [Genesis 4:1-8] Abel's sacrifice was accepted and Cain’s wasn't. Cain killed his younger brother.
- [Gen. 21] Isaac is accepted to continue the covenant and Ishmael isn’t. Ishmael makes sport of his little bother, and gets himself and his mom banished.
- [Gen. 25:27-34, Gen. 27] Jacob cons the blessing and birthright out of his brother and father. Esau vows to murder him, but Jacob flees to his uncle Laban in Padan-Aram.
- [Gen. 37]Joseph is the spoiled favorite of his father to the detriment of his other sons. Joseph gets sold into slavery. But after almost losing several sons in this last exchange, Jacob changes. He no longer follows the pattern.
As we have seen in both the Abraham and Isaac stories, Abraham and Isaac prefer their older child, Ishmael and Esau, to their younger. But by the end of each story it is the younger child that receives the blessing. But in our potion Jacob intentionally blesses the younger before the older [Gen. 48:13-19]. He places his hand on the wrong grandkids for the blessing, and Joseph, disturbed by this interjects that he is doing it wrong. But Jacob says, I imagine with an understanding smile, "I know, my son I know"[Gen. 48:19]
When all of his sons are finally together, he does not pick out one specific son to say is better than the rest. Instead, he gives a comment about each one, not accord to their status or birthright, but to their temperament and merit. Some like Judah, who redeemed himself after initial errors of judgment in how he dealt with Tamar and Joseph, are praised as a lions' cub [Gen 49:8-12]. Some like Rueben who made serious lapses in judgment and temper, are blessed for past performance, but are cursed for the future.
All of this leads to one particular concept- Jacob treated his sons as people who made choices, instead of treating them according to things not in their control, like their birth order or mother.
The Talmud says of Jacob [Taanit 5a] that "Jacob didn’t die," that he lived on in his seed, which are his children. But the Ishbitzer Rebbe says that seed is a little different. That in his last seventeen years, when all of his children more or less got along, he had a taste of heaven in this world, and thus was spared the transition between this world and the next, that transition being death. That taste of heaven is reflected in this address to his sons. They are no longer honored by birthright but by merit, and thus sense of equality which brings harmony occurs.
Why does the text not end then with the death of Jacob, but with the death of Joseph? There is still one unresolved issue. Did Joseph reveal himself to his brothers did not yet forgive them? The brothers did not admit their wrongs to Joseph, they simply said that their brother was killed by an animal, [Gen. 44:20,44:28,42:13] which both Joseph and his brothers knew to be false. This lie continues until Jacob’s death when the brothers fretted about their fate. Then they apologized, but by that time Joseph had indeed forgiven. They live together as peacefully as brothers can until Joseph’s death, when the story ends. This is different than the relationship of Jacob and Esau or Isaac and Ishmael. They do get together only bury their respective father after death, and one meeting between Jacob and Esau. Once again we have closure of a pattern- brothers live together peacefully.
In the last chapter, after the death of their father, the brothers, though indirectly, finally apologize to Joseph, and this time Joseph speaks "to their heart” and accepts fully the apology. Rashi believes that Joseph said them additionally "how can one candle extinguish ten candles?" All were different and unique sources of spiritual illumination, and all were needed to increase the light. There is not one special candle: every candle counts.
Joseph was 39 when his brothers first approached him in Egypt and 56 when his father died. Joseph dies at age 110, enough to see three generations of his sons. In that last 54 years he lived peacefully, enjoying family life, and playing with the grandkids. The strain of the families of the past resolved. With that ending, our first book of the Torah ends.
To summarize all of the above, I can only think of one song:
Hine ma tov u'ma-naim shevet achim gam yachad.
How good it is for brothers to live together!