How is so­cial sta­tus de­ter­mined?

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - JUDAISM - The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

This week’s Torah por­tion, Vayehi, con­cludes the long story about Joseph and his broth­ers and the en­tire Book of Ge­n­e­sis. Ge­n­e­sis can be dis­tin­guished from the other four books of the Bi­ble in that it does not tell the story of the Jewish na­tion. Rather, it de­scribes the back­ground to the na­tion’s foun­da­tion – be­gin­ning with the cre­ation of the world up to the de­scrip­tion of Ja­cob’s fam­ily in Egypt. Im­me­di­ately af­ter Ge­n­e­sis, al­ready in the first chap­ter of the Book of Ex­o­dus, we start hear­ing about the “na­tion.”

Ge­n­e­sis in­cludes al­most no prac­ti­cal in­struc­tions or com­mand­ments. How­ever, the first book of the Bi­ble teaches us the back­ground for many com­mand­ments we will read about in the fol­low­ing books.

An ex­am­ple of this is the sta­tus of the el­dest child in the fam­ily. In the Book of Deuteron­omy, we learn the laws of in­her­i­tance, and there we will learn that the old­est son gets twice what his broth­ers get of the fa­ther’s in­her­i­tance. How­ever, in the Book of Ge­n­e­sis, we read a whole string of sto­ries that ques­tion the nat­u­ral sta­tus of the first­born.

At the very start of hu­man­ity, in the first chap­ter of Ge­n­e­sis, we hear of two broth­ers, the first­born, Cain, and his younger brother, Abel. When they both of­fered sac­ri­fices, the Cre­ator of the uni­verse pre­ferred that of the younger brother.

The same hap­pened with the sons of Noah: Shem – the son who, ac­cord­ing to most com­men­ta­tors, was the youngest – was pre­ferred over Japheth, the first­born. Later, Abra­ham was ap­par­ently not Terah’s first­born; Isaac was pre­ferred over his older brother Ish­mael; Ja­cob got his fa­ther’s bless­ings in­stead of Esau; the younger Rachel was the beloved wife and not her older sis­ter, Leah; Ja­cob’s first­born, Reuben, was de­posed from the po­si­tion of first­born, and the jobs were di­vided among his younger broth­ers – Levi, Ju­dah and Joseph; and in this week’s Torah por­tion, Ja­cob blesses Joseph’s two sons and gives pref­er­ence to the younger Ephraim over first­born Manasseh.

This run of sim­i­lar sto­ries can­not be ig­nored. Through­out all of Ge­n­e­sis, from be­gin­ning to end, we find the younger child given pref­er­ence over the first­born. It is clear that the Torah is con­vey­ing a mes­sage that is to serve as a back­ground to the rest of the Torah.

The sta­tus of the first­born and the rights that come with it are the re­sult of a bi­o­log­i­cal fact: the son born first. Na­ture is the fac­tor that de­ter­mines so­cial norms. This is what was ac­cept­able in all an­cient cul­tures. As we men­tioned, the laws of in­her­i­tance writ­ten in Deuteron­omy give pref­er­ence to the first­born in his fa­ther’s in­her­i­tance. But the Book of Deuteron­omy with­out the Book of Ge­n­e­sis might give us a skewed per­spec­tive that be­stows so­cial sta­tus based on a re­al­ity that is out of man’s con­trol.

There­fore, the Torah gives us a slew of sto­ries in Ge­n­e­sis that teach us that so­cial sta­tus should not be de­ter­mined only by bi­o­log­i­cal fac­tors, but as a re­sult of val­ues that the per­son chose. It is moral and re­li­gious lead­er­ship that de­ter­mines norms, cre­ates sta­tus and be­stows both priv­i­leges and obli­ga­tions.

The Book of Ge­n­e­sis serves as an es­sen­tial back­ground to the con­tin­u­a­tion of the Torah, not only so that we can com­pre­hend the be­gin­ning of the story, but so that we should get an ac­cu­rate pic­ture of the val­ues the Torah wishes to be­queath to us. These sto­ries – of the Pa­tri­archs, of Joseph and his broth­ers – are not only fa­bles il­lus­trat­ing dis­tant his­tory. They are foun­da­tional sto­ries that teach a world­view and set up a value sys­tem that serves as the ba­sis for the Torah’s com­mand­ments, most of which ap­pear in the fol­low­ing books. ■

Through­out all of Ge­n­e­sis, from be­gin­ning to end, we find the younger child given pref­er­ence over the first­born

(Ian Bai­ley-Mor­timer/Flickr)

‘THE BOOK of Ge­n­e­sis [gives us] an ac­cu­rate pic­ture of the val­ues the Torah wishes to be­queath to us.’

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