In concluding the book of Genesis this week, we lay the groundwork for the B’nei Yisrael – the children of Israel, becoming Am Yisrael – the nation of Israel. While Genesis has focused on interpersonal issues primarily within the family, the rest of the Torah will take its themes and apply them to the national level. For example, let us explore the development of one of Genesis’ themes, that of being “your brother’s keeper”. The rhetorical question Cain asked after his killing of his brother Abel is slowly answered through a series of stories about brothers: Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yakov and Esau, and finally Joseph and his brothers. Over the generations, we see animosity shifting to acceptance to embrace. By the time we read these concluding chapters in this week’s parashah, we see that “the children of Israel” are the true brothers of Israel. In this vein, Joseph assures his brothers, “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result – the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus, says the Torah, he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Vayechi contains Jacob’s blessing of his sons, in which we realize that the brothers are part of one whole family. Jacob’s (Israel’s) blessing of his sons demonstrates his keen analysis of their individual character and strengths and weaknesses. We, in our own families, recognize that while we are all imperfect individuals, there is something larger that holds us together as a family unit – not just our ancestral history and shared experience, but also our values and goals. This week’s parashah opens with Jacob’s death and the journey that all the brothers take from Egypt back to the Promised Land to bury their father there. It closes with Joseph’s death and the promise of his brothers to bury his bones in the Promised Land. A second major theme of the book of Genesis has been God’s covenant with the children of Israel to turn them into a great nation and bring them to the Promised Land of Israel as an eternal inheritance. Jacob’s insistence on burial in the land of Israel, and Joseph’s swearing on oath to do so, shows the importance of the inheriting the land for the family (especially given the cult of death through the building of and burial in pyramids in Pharaoh’s Egypt).
Thus, the book of Genesis closes with a sense of completion – we have affirmed that we are our brother’s keeper, and a group of brothers has acted in harmony as a larger family unit to lay claim to the land of Israel through the burial of their father there (and the promise to bury Joseph’s bones there as well.) However, Genesis is a prelude to the challenges that this family will face when they become a nation. What does it mean “to be your brother’s keeper” when that person is totally unknown to you, not part of your family at all? Further, what is the purpose of our inheriting the Promised Land if we are just to be another nation in another land? The remainder of the Torah will answer these questions for us, with the slavery we undergo at the beginning of the next book crucial to our family’s becoming a nation. Over time we will learn that “your brother” includes “the stranger” and that we have come to the land to be a holy people in service to the God of justice and compassion, of life, good and blessing. Genesis: the beginning of our journey; the rest of Torah – the teaching of what that journey means for us to this day.