In the preface to his book “Voices from Genesis,” Rabbi Norman Cohen, professor emeritus of midrash at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion, wrote: “This book speaks about the human journey from birth to death, as reflected in the development of the characters in the Book of Genesis. As such, it challenges all conscientious readers to reflect upon their lives, and the stages of growth which they have experienced.”
As we have all been challenged, these past two and a half years, to live in a world where a viral pandemic and political chaos have had a simultaneous effect on us, my recent re-reading of Rabbi Cohen’s book has challenged me to consider how I can use the stories of our biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, as a lens through which I can see our own lives and our own time more clearly.
In presenting our patriarchs and matriarchs as lacking in some essential parenting skills, and having problematic social interactions with strangers, be they Abimelech, Pharaoh, Laban or others, Genesis reminds that even our biblical ancestors, who on balance were righteous and heroic figures, were also less than perfect. Their human mistakes had consequences. In fact, I would argue that from the Genesis narrative of the world’s first siblings until today, God continues to ask us the questions first addressed to Adam in Genesis 3. Ayeka? Where are you? And in Genesis 4, a question to Cain: Aye achiv? Where is your brother?
Tragically, a truth of life is that we human beings continue to emulate Adam and Cain in refusing to take responsibility for our actions.
I could use examples from both the Abraham and Isaac narratives to expound on this point. However, I believe that the voice from Genesis that most distinctly speaks to me, in 5783, is the story of Jacob; and in particular his two dreams, the first of which is found in the opening of this week’s Torah portion.
Parsha VaYetze (Genesis 28:10 -31:3) begins with Jacob, who is running away from home, described for us as afraid and exhausted. In this first dream Jacob dreams a dream in which he sees angels depicted as going up and then down on the ladder (28:12). When he awakens he realizes, “God was in that place and he did not know it” (28:16).
Over the course of the covid pandemic I have often felt as if I was living on an emotional escalator. Just as I would reach a high point, the covid numbers would cause my staircase of life to speedily take a downturn. Coupled with the equally rapid changes politically in America, in Israel, and around the world, I was unable to see the angels of God who were going up and down on this staircase of life.
As covid 19 appears to be mutating into an endemic rather than pandemic state, I ask all of us to put ourselves into Jacob’s story and ask ourselves some questions.
How often do we forget to be grateful for the angels that help us? How many times have we been in need of an angel and felt forgotten and/or betrayed just because we did not look around us and notice the angels that are with us? How many times have we mistaken enemies for angels? How do we show gratitude for what we have to God and others?
The Kotzker rebbe once rhetorically asked, “Where do you find God?” His answer was “Wherever and whenever you invite God in.” This is the message I find in Jacob’s awareness when he awakens: “God was in this place and I, I, did not know it.” How could Jacob, the inheritor of the spiritual mantle of Isaac and Abraham, not know that God was in the place?
Perhaps in the spirit of one of Jacob’s descendants, Sigmund Freud, it was due to the fact that the “I” that Jacob uses twice in this verse is the “I” of the ego that blinds him to the presence of others, both human and Divine.
In recounting the second dream (Genesis 32:25-30), found in the opening chapter of next week’s Torah portion, where Jacob wrestles with a “Being” and is given the name Israel, meaning God wrestler, Rabbi Cohen, unlike classic rabbinic commentators, asks us to see the story from the perspective of Esau. As I looked again at the confrontation of Jacob and Esau, this time in terms of contemporary sibling relationships, I thought about Esau’s anger and Jacob’s guilt, which they must have felt around caring for their aging parents.
Imagine with me how Esau must have felt. Jacob is returning home after 22 years, presumably to assert his right as the tribal leader. While Jacob was in Haran, Esau, we can assume, had been caring for their now aging parents and running the family’s substantial cattle business. No wonder he approaches Jacob ready to do battle.
Does brotherly love win out? Or is this story the prototype for the plague of sinat chinam, the unwarranted anger of brother for brother?
Do Jacob and Esau really forgive each other and make peace?
The text in Genesis 33 is unclear. I hear it saying “yes but.” The reason I can honestly add the “but” is because in the text of chapter 33 verse 4 the word “ vayishakehu,” which translates as “they kissed each other,” is written with a series of dots above it. Those dots are found nowhere else in the Torah. One thousand years ago, Rashi wrote that “the dots could be a hidden clue to indicate either that Esau’s kiss was insincere, or that after planning for 22 years to kill his brother, Esau’s latent love for his twin wins out.”
After their embrace and their kiss, Jacob and Esau each go their separate ways, but they seem to remain friendly neighbors who respect each other’s right to be different. As American Jews, the pandemic of covid-19 has been accompanied by an equally dangerous return of an epidemic of antisemitism. I suggest to you that the dots over the word vayishakehu could be a reminder that while Jacob and Esau never became united as one family, they did learn the lesson of the Cain and Abel story.
Yes, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. Yes, despite our differences we must learn to live side by side as good neighbors.
As Americans and as Jews of the 21st century, I believe that each of us is being called upon to answer the questions God posed in the opening of the Torah. Ayeka? Where are you? And we are called to answer Cain’s self-centered response to God’s inquiry of Abel’s whereabouts with an affirmative yes. I am my brother’s keeper, and my sister’s as well.