Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            There's an issue which plagues me almost every year.  Why do we end the book of Genesis at this juncture?  If I had been asked to edit the books of our Torah, I would have had the first book continue until the exodus, and the next book would contain the second half of what we call Exodus and the entirety of Leviticus.  Almost all of the latter material is about the Temple and sacrifices.  I have trouble ending Genesis as a cliff hanger.  The Jews are stuck in Egypt without the moral leadership of either Ya'akov or Yosef.  I know that we can't view these holy volumes as regular works of literature, but I do firmly believe that sophisticated literary analysis techniques can help us squeeze more meaning from these sacred texts.  When does a book end?  Unlike these articles which end when I reach a thousand words, books end when you've finished making your point or communicating your message.  So, what is the overriding message of Genesis?

            A few years ago I asked and answered this question.  Then I suggested that the overriding theme of Genesis is sibling rivalry.  So, the book begins with the story of Cain and Abel, continues with the tales of Yitzchak-Yishmael, Ya'akov-Esav, Yosef-everybody else, and finishes with the blessings for Ephraim and Menashe.  This incident ends with Menashe feeling pride for his younger brother, who eclipses him in their grandfather's blessings and in Jewish history.  This act of selfless graciousness is therefore, the fitting end to Genesis.  However, this year I'd like to propose a totally different answer to this query. 

            Genesis begins with the creation tale, culminating in the fabrication of humans, and the story of the Garden of Eden.  What's the moral or the essence of this tale?  That humans were created with tremendous potential.  This latent capability is so huge that we are actually formed in the image of God.  However, fulfilling this promise requires us to confront many challenges.  These challenges are also opportunities.  The world is filled with temptations, represented by the snake.  A wise congregant recently sent me a cartoon from the New Yorker.  In the picture Adam and Eve are walking away from an apple tree which has the snake wrapped around it.  Adam has just taken a bite from the apple and tells Eve, "Hey, I've figured out how we can have a kid without giving up another rib."

Even the joke acknowledges that there are lessons to be learned even in the failures.  So, the Garden is a learning experience from which we are forced to emerge with added responsibilities, hard work for the guys, hard labor for the girls.  We are banished from the Garden and it is guarded by supernatural forces.  We must conquer and build our own gardens.  These new settlements will have their own rules that we must learn to navigate to make these communities succeed.  We can't go back; we can only go forward.  Even if and when we reenter Eden; it won't be the same, because we will have evolved.  The primordial free lunch has been eternally shut down.

Now, let's look at the end of Genesis.  In chapter fifty we have the burial of Ya'akov and the instructions of Yosef.  The Jews have left the land of Israel and won't go home for a long time.  Yosef instructs them that when it's time to go home again, they must bring his mortal remains with them.  We have ended the idyllic period of the Patriarchs, and find ourselves far from home and in dire straights.  But unlike the exile from Eden, there is a promise of eventual return.  It's that promise which is so fascinating.

Yosef gathers his brothers, and tells them, "I am going to die; God will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (Genesis 50:24)."  The expression he used which is translated as 'remember' is pakod yifkod.  This pkd root can mean a number of things.  It is used to mean count, remember and visit.  In modern Hebrew it usually is related to ideas like assignments, roles or jobs.  This expression is so significant that it is repeated one verse later, and Moshe is told to use it when he announces his mission to the Jewish people (Exodus 3:16).  What is the significance of this term in this context?

There are two terms which the Torah uses when relating that God will remember us.  One is the more popular zachor, and the other is pakod.  Since we've said many times that there are no synonyms is Hebrew, we must ask:  What's the difference between these two terms?  Zachor is the regular, garden variety, remember, which is also used when describing humans.  With the Creator, Who never forgets, this word means that God is putting into effect a previously made promise.  However, pakod implies something entirely different.  Pakod involves not only that God is fulfilling a promise, but is also giving an assignment.  When God remembers to save Noach in the ark, the Torah says zachor.  But when God miraculously makes Sarah pregnant, the verse says pakod.  This is because removing the flood was totally God's assignment, but birthing and raising Yitzchak was a joint effort between God and Sarah, with a little Avraham on the side.  Pakod entails hard work on the part of the recipient.

Now we can explain the ending of Genesis.  Just like the emergence from the Garden of Eden was accompanied by explanations about how hard life in the outside world would be, so, too, Yosef explains at the beginning of the Egyptian bondage that this experience will require toughness on the part of the Jews.  Individuals, nations and our entire species begin in Paradise with others taking care of us.  But maturity requires us to take control of our destiny and to stop our complete reliance on parents and Maker.  We can now end the book, because the point has been made.  That's a thousand words.  I can end the article.             

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