Is there an overarching theme to the first book in the Torah?
Most people are taught about our forefathers as a series of stories, but beyond the obvious moral lessons one can draw, we are not usually taught about what Avraham’s life has to do with the rest of the written and oral Torah.
In part, this is because of the way we learn: we read the Torah from week to week which means that we often miss connections that exist in the text, but in very different sections.
I have argued elsewhere that Genesis serves to provide the foundation for the commandments to the Jewish people, given after the Jewish experience in Egypt. Genesis can be used to readily justify the laws of mikvah, ritual purity, kashrut and even the red heifer. And so it is possible – or even desirable – to see Genesis as very important because it explains the rest of the commandments in the Torah.
But all this may still be missing the forest for the trees. Sure, we can explain a given commandment given late in the Torah, by a reference to text in Genesis. And that is instructive and useful. But is there an overarching theme in the first book of the Torah that helps us understand the underlying process of the breeding and selection of the Jewish people, a people designated as having a unique relationship with G-d for the rest of human history?
Rabbi Sacks asks this question. He points out that plenty of non-Jewish people in the Torah talk with G-d – from Avimelech to Pharoah to Lavan. What makes the Jews special?
Sacks’ answer is that, from Avraham and Sarah’s brush with Pharoah to Yosef’s encounter with Potiphar’s wife, there is a
contrast between the people of the Abrahamic covenant and their neighbours, but it is not about idolatry, but rather about adultery, promiscuity, sexual license, seduction, rape and sexually motivated violence.
My problem with this is that even this lens is too focused. Much of Genesis is not about sex at all. And some of the sexual stories (like Yehudah and Tamar) do not fit the pattern that the Chief Rabbi is trying to impose on it. Sacks is not answering the basic question: if we take several steps back to ensure we capture the entire panorama in one glance, what is the single overarching theme of Genesis?
Modern sociologists like Bancroft identified the single biggest differentiator between people in America who are upper class from those who are lower class. The difference can be found in a very simple concept: time horizons.
Think of it as “perspective”. In inner-city America, people will fight and die over a passing fancy. Consequences that are not immediate (like jail time or even a death sentence) do not even enter the consciousness. They are capable of theft, rape or violence on a mere whim. These people literally live in the moment.
Certain upper class Americans, on the other hand, date their pedigrees back hundreds of years. Upper class people are not only aware of the past: they plan for the future by investing in long-term education, investments (such as graduate school) that may not even recoup the invested capital. And they care a great deal about the legacy that they leave behind. To be upper class is to see a long chain behind us, and see ourselves as links in the chain to the future.
The Torah in Genesis divides Jews from non-Jews along this very chasm. Avraham obsesses about his legacy, about generations to come. Rivkah risks her marriage and the son she loves in return for hope that the Jewish legacy will be properly perpetuated. The midrash even tells us about Rivkah’s commitment to the Beis Hamikdash, not to be built for a thousand years. Yaakov plans for the future – always deferring the “now” in return for the greater reward down the road. Esau, by contrast, uses the word “zeh” – a word meaning “this” – Esau is all about the here and now. And Yosef is the consummate planner, singlehandedly managing Egypt’s long-term strategy for grain stockpiling and consumption.
None of these stories is about sex. Sex is, of course, a key element in all of human history, but it is not the only one. The Torah tells us about the fundamental desire that people have for unions with each other. But with the Jews, the sexual is a part of the overall story, of the very same long time horizon. And so the Torah praises marriage and condemns promiscuity because promiscuity cripples our ability to connect to our spouse. This matters, of course, because relationships between husband and wife are the model for the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. Failed human relationships lead to failed relationships with our creator, in this generation and in future generations. We take the long view, and keep the big picture in mind.
The story of Yehudah and Tamar exemplifies this perfectly. Yehudah falls victim to his own short-term sexual desires, in contrast to the long-sighted Tamar who was trying to perpetuate her deceased husband’s name. Yehudah accepts the reproof on both counts: Tamar’s time horizon is correct, and he had been in error both in delaying Tamar’s marriage, and in falling prey to his desires.
Even in the interpersonal relationships between fathers and sons, Genesis is a story moving in a single direction: Avraham left his father, Terah; Avraham and Yitzchak lived apart after the Akeidah; Yaakov delayed seeing his father until the end of Yitzchak’s life. The “refining” process of Genesis ends with Yosef and his brothers, the first generation of Jews who voluntarily chose to live together, fathers and sons. This is the building block of a nation: the long-term closeness not only between husband and wife, but also between generations.
So I submit that if one is looking for an overarching theme of Genesis, a common ideal that shows why the Jewish people are unique and important, it is that we as a people take the long view, invest and love with our thoughts, words and deeds for the sake of ourselves and generations to come.
The overarching theme of Genesis is that we, the Jewish people, are distinct because in every aspect of our lives we are meant to always be building for the future. We forego the here-and-now, and instead use our lives and our loves to build another link in the eternal bridge between mankind and G-d.