Sunday, December 8, 2013

Torah Portion Vayechi: Farewell to Genesis, Alas: Learning How to Be a Mensch



            Sadly, the time has arrived: once again, we are concluding Beraysheet/Genesis. For all the years that I have studied Torah, it remains my favorite book of the five—from the very first time I studied it, in first grade in Hebrew Day School, from a Chumash-primer with big black block Hebrew letters. Of all the books in the Torah, it has the most appeal for readers who love stories about people, with all of their peccadilloes. Here is the proof that dysfunctional relatives are a primary characteristic of us Jews, and the human family in general: they are right there in Genesis, whether examining Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, or Joseph and his Brothers. There are no perfect human beings in this book, just ordinary folks going about their lives, much as we do today. The significant difference is that God appears outright in these stories, as a speaking and acting character. Most of us cannot discern God’s role in our lives as directly as our ancestors did, but that doesn’t mean that He is not there. As the great humanistic theologian and philosopher Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) stated, “Vocatus non vocatus, Deus aderit—Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”
            And now, we come, regrettably, to the end of Genesis, with Jacob living far from his beloved land of Israel (although it does not yet bear that name), as a pensioner in Egypt, benefiting from his son Joseph’s lightning ascent to the top of the Egyptian civil service, although Jacob is not terribly happy about it. Give some credit to Poppa Jacob: he gathers his wayward sons (and, we may presume, his daughter, Dena) around his deathbed to deliver his final patriarchal blessing, and proceeds in no uncertain terms to tell them what he thinks of the boys, warts and all: no compliments, but matter-of-fact evaluations, of their present (and future) personalities and interactions (For a fun contrast, compare Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died”).
We can judge Jacob’s speech in one of two ways: either he’s a prophet, or, the blessing/poem was written during the amphictyonic, or tribal, period, when the tribes were just as likely to go to war against one another(!) as against outside nations who threatened them. They were not unified into the “Nation of Israel” until David’s reign in around 1,000 BCE, and didn’t mesh well, even afterwards. Old Jacob criticizes them harshly, and I believe that his frank assessments point up a major fact of our faith: Jews are expected to behave properly in both their families and society, and woe betide the occasional miscreant who falls short of the mark. When we read of scandals in the media, whether financial, political, or personal, we invariably scan the list of wrongdoers for Jewish-sounding names. When the occasional Madoff or Rothstein comes along, we ought to add “May their names and memories be erased” following their names, for blackening, not only their own reputations, but those of their community—not least, because they began by stealing from their own people, and continued their virus-like activity against others. Why? Because, as our parents and rabbis taught us while growing up, “Jews don’t behave that way.”

            It is called menschlichkeit—that elusive quality which is so hard to develop: the ability to comport oneself as a capable, compassionate human being, in a world where so many are eager to lie, cheat, and steal in the quest for the easy buck. We live in this world, with all of its temptations and opportunities to backstab, but are supposed to set the highest standard of character for ourselves. As a Buddhist phrase has it, “We should live like the lotus blossom. It grows out of the water, but its petals are not wet.” Genesis represents the absolute triumph of the human spirit over adversity, and, as a Jew, I am very proud to be part of the faith produced it.