The Torah portion of Vayechi marks the conclusion of the book of Genesis, and signals the transition from personal stories of the sons of Israel to communal stories of the Israelite nation. At the heart of this story is the notion that family is a larger enterprise than merely blood relations. Beginning with Moses, the Torah will refer to the relationship between a Jew and his fellow as fraternal: When Moses grows up, he goes out “to see his brothers” (Ex. 2:11). From here on out, the Torah employs the term “ach,” brother, to denote a relationship that is not a brotherly relationship that we would recognize.

The song, “Hinei mah tov,” familiar to many from camp days, comes from Psalm 133. The line is translated, “How good is it, and how pleasant, when brothers dwell together.” (Ps. 133:1) The Midrash applies the verse to Moses and Aaron, brothers who shared leadership and did not begrudge each other their respective positions. Yet the lesson of the verse is perhaps most poignantly learned during the story of Joseph, particularly during Judah’s speech in parshat Vayigash.

The speech is 16 verses long, the longest in the Torah. The pivot point comes at the beginning of the ninth verse of the speech (44:27), when Judah recounts Jacob’s words: “You know that my wife bore me two sons.” The medieval commentator Ramban notes the obvious: Jacob had more than one wife, so why is it only Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, who is referred to as his his wife? He answers that Rachel was the only wife whom Jacob took willingly. Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah were each imposed upon him. Rachel was the love of his life, the wife who Jacob truly loved.

What is so striking here is that Judah acknowledges this reality, and all that it implies: Yes, in Jacob’s eyes, Joseph is special–more so than the other brothers, including himself. While this led to the resentment and hatred that ultimately caused the brothers to try to kill Joseph, at this point Judah shows that he has matured (perhaps because by now he, too, has had children by more than one wife), and that he would put himself in harm’s way in order to preserve Jacob’s last remaining link to Rachel. It is at this point that Joseph can no longer hold himself back, and reveals his identity to his brothers. “I am your brother Joseph,” he says, reaffirming the brotherly relationship.

The book of Genesis has been a story of favored and unfavored brothers–Abel and Cain, Shem, Ham, and Yaphet, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. What finally happens at the end is that brothers who share a father but not a mother learn to recognize one another and live harmoniously, outdoing the success of even brothers who share parentage (and a womb, in the case of Jacob and Esau). Indeed, parshat Vayechi puts an exclamation point on the narrative, when Jacob states that “Ephraim and Menashe will be like Reuben and Simeon to me.” (48:5) Two boys who do not share the father or mother of Joseph’s brothers will be treated just like them.

This is the beginning of peoplehood, the idea that we have familial ties to people with whom we do not share biology. What makes someone a member of the Jewish people? Being part of the Jewish story–being committed to it, shaped by it, living one’s life in dialogue with it. This is one of the hardest things to teach today. It requires not just book knowledge, but lived experience: shared foods and stories and songs, the things we highlight at the Passover seder (the touchstone of Jewish peoplehood) but that must be cultiavated and lived throughout the year–day by day, week by week. The effect of sharing food and story and song is to build a bond more powerful than that of biology, the bonds of culture, the bonds of brotherhood.

Advertisements