We have just finished 12 weeks in the Torah reading service of the book of Bereshit ó Genesis. I am left wondering about all the brutal sibling episodes found in the text. Are these stories that we should be telling our children? Are they not frightening and potentially damaging? Should we be censoring? What are the possible lessons here?
Your query demands a two-track response ó about the nature of children and regarding the nature of the book of Bereshit.
First the children: when thinking about the kind of stories appropriate for children, I often turn to Bruno Bettleheim. He was an American Jewish psychologist who spent time in Dachau and Buchenwald and author of The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.
Not that our Torah is fairy tales ó of course not ó but from Bettleheimís discussions we can garner an approach to Torah stories that at first glance may seem inappropriate for children.
He emphasizes the positive nature of fairy tales. They are an effective way for children to externalize their inner anxieties and to find orderly images and stories by which to begin to shape their lives. Stories serve to liberate children from their emotions. Though some stories need to be held aside for a more mature stage in life, most Torah stories, when told in a loving secure atmosphere, ultimately contribute to the childís sense of well-being. These tales tell our story and deal with issues relevant to children: sibling rivalry, jealousy and favoritism. They provide a Jewish backdrop for important issues that children often need to explore.
James Fowler identifies six stages of spirituality in his work, Stages of Faith. In his description of Stage I, the Intuitive Projective faith, Fowler writes that in this stage, commonly found from ages 2-6, children can be powerfully and permanently influenced by examples, moods, actions and stories. He tells us it is desirable to expose children to death, poverty, treachery and maliciousness in the context of Bible stories ó when told by trusted adults.
So let us consider the details of Bereshit and explore some of the narratives that may concern you. Yes, the book begins with a brutal primal fratricide, but it ends with a stirring brotherly reconciliation. It starts with a story of silent, distant parents but ends with the bestowal of impeccably sculpted patriarchal blessings. When taken in measured weekly doses, Bereshit provides us with a steady array of compelling and often unsettling family situations. When taken as a whole, the book suggests growth and healing.
The Torah does not provide a single word of dialogue between Adam and Eve and their children Cain and Abel. Did they exchange words? I am sure they did. That not one sentence and not one word is recorded, however, speaks volumes ó there was no record-worthy interchange between parent and children, reflecting a deep and striking absence of relationship.
Not a few readers note that Adam and Eve have no parental models ó created directly from the earth and not the womb, they understandably lack parenting skills. As such, they are far from perfect parents. In a scene absent of parental supervision, one sonís offering is accepted, one is rejected. The hurt is too painful to bear, the burning jealously is inextinguishable, and the one son murders the other. The chain of sibling rivalry episodes is launched.
Sibling rivalry reaches its most complex and detailed level of narrative as the story of Joseph unfolds. Preceded by Ishmaelís banishment and Esauís disinheritance, the Joseph stories provide us with an intensely cathartic tale of favoritism and jealously, loss and reinstatement. That Joseph is preceded first by Isaac and Ishmael, then by Jacob and Esau, is indispensable to the unraveling of the storyís nuances.
At this final installment in the sibling strife series launched with Cain and Abel, it builds upon those that came before and most satisfyingly concludes with hope: brothers can make peace. The Joseph parshiyot, in their length and depth, are a profoundly fulfilling conclusion to Bereshit.
As Joseph is thrown into the pit, his precious coat ripped from his body, we pause in frustrated scorn: again a brother is victim to brotherly hatred? The selling of Joseph comes on the heels of a birthright sold under duress and the banishment of a son that does not belong. But final installment must be considered in context.
First the banishment: Ishmael is born from a liaison fraught with self-interest and conflict, bereft of love and commitment. He does not belong and as he plays with the chosen son Isaac, Sarah senses danger. Ishmael must be banished.
Isaac grows up in a home from which the ill-fitting son has been cast away. Yet when faced as a parent himself with an ill-fitting son, he chooses the opposite technique. Esau is embraced and held close while Jacob must scheme to receive the blessing he deserves. Isaacís affection for Esau is puzzling, and to some even disturbing. Perhaps his hope was to bring close rather than to banish, to embrace rather than to alienate, the loss of his own brother ever fresh.
Jacobís seemingly inelegant exchange of lentil soup for birthright is followed by the deceptively acquired blessing. For these deeds Jacob is rewarded with years of pain. His beloved Rachel is switched on the wedding night for Leah. As was Isaac blinded and unknowing, so too was Jacob fooled. Children are born of wives competing for the love of one man; jealously ensues. And we arrive at the saga of Joseph.
Wearing the privileged coat of colors, he becomes a talebearer bringing reports of his brothers back to Father. He has dreams of night that reflect daytime thoughts of grandeur. This lording over his brothers lands him stripped of the coat, in a pit waiting to be sold down to Egypt. Textual confusion notwithstanding, years later he identifies himself, ďI am Joseph your brother; you sold me down to EgyptĒ ó trading of humans; father purchases birthright; son is sold into slavery.
While Jacobís preferential treatment of Joseph leads to no good, times change Jacob. As he prepares for the end of life, blessings are bestowed upon each of the brothers. Jacob, unlike Adam, speaks to each son and with carefully measured words each receives a fitting eternal message.
The book that began with the arrogant theft of life, as Cain brutally denies Abel his right to live, not knowing that God in His divinity is the sole author of life, concludes with the powerful humble pronouncement of Joseph, ďDo I stand in the place of God?Ē
Lessons are learned. Generations teach generations; repair is made. Perhaps Josephís peace with his brothers begins the healing for the murder of Abel. Though the episodes are at times disturbing, the resolutions are lofty and reassuring. Personally, it is painful for me to say goodbye to Bereshit, but Shemot awaits our attention with promises of similarly engaging text.