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Genesis: the first principles of Judaism

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IF you were looking for something new on the Torah as the reading cycle starts up again, may I suggest Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ Covenant and Conversation, a weekly reading of the Jewish Bible?

This first volume, on the Book of Genesis, is a profound look at the narratives of the Torah’s central protaganists.

For Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, the Torah has a Jewish message, but a universal message as well. In his writing, he is concerned with reaching out to both communities.

Sacks explores the universal concerns of freedom, love, responsibility, identity and destiny as they intersect with the Torah’s encounter between past and present, moment and eternity. Because of his vast exposure to traditional philosophers as well as modern thinkers, Sacks produces a rich, thought-provoking and inspiring dialogue on the stories we have long-known.

For example, in his essay on Lech Lecha — which is read in the synagogue tomorrow, Oct. 31 —  Sacks takes what has become almost a cliché, the term “journey,” and explains it as a multi-dimensional experience. Sacks’ journey is about the self and G-d, but with a deep understanding of human nature under a sovereign G-d.

Genesis, Sacks explains, is not about the beginning, but about the foundation — the “first principles,” as he calls them — of Judaism, of humanity. The other four books of the Torah may not have many stories on forgiveness, for example, but not for lack of the Torah espousing forgiveness; rather, because forgiveness as a principle was already laid out in its full meaning and understanding in Genesis.

Case in point: The story of Joseph in Egypt.

Sacks asks the reader to see Joseph’s perspective. After living away from his father for 22 silent years, how else could Joseph explain his father’s silence?

“He must have not loved me. He must have been angry with me about my dream interpretation,” Sacks suggests.

“How dare I mention that the moon and sun (my mother and father) would prostrate themselves before me,” Joseph asks himself.

And Joseph knew that his father was capable of cutting off a relationship with a child. Sacks cites Jacob’s almost silent relationship with his three oldest sons, with whom he seems to have virtually broken off by the time Joseph is sold by his brothers.

The Joseph narrative is possibly about tragic misunderstandings, a larger theme of Genesis, Sacks says, while quoting Freud and an 18th- century commentary and a psalm all at once. This leads to the most fragile question about human relationships: forgiveness.

SACKS opens his essay on the next to last portion of Genesis, Vayigash, with this very issue. He seems to suggest that in order for forgiveness to be whole there needs to be a change in the human behavior that lead to the rift or estrangement in the relationship.

He explains that Joseph put his brothers through the entanglement of hiding a cup in Benjamin’s sack, etc., in order to see whether his brothers had changed.

Would they do away with another brother?

For Joseph it would have been absurd to forgive while the crime was still being committed, Sacks says.

More profoundly suggestive, Sacks says: “Before he can come to terms with his brothers, Joseph has to come to terms with himself and his experiences.

That is why forgiveness lifts the forgiver even more than the one who is forgiven.”

Sacks goes onto explain that although the issue of forgiveness is not addressed often in the Bible, this is not because Judaism isn’t about forgiveness, or because forgiveness is G-d’s domain. Rather, forgiveness was addressed in its full meaning here in Genesis because Genesis is the book that lays out all the principles of human relationships.

“Here the themes of hostility, resentment, estrangement and reconciliation are explored in all of their depth and pathos,” he writes.

Like his treatment on forgiveness, Sacks’ book speaks to other frequently asked questions about life, as well as those often ignored.

His essays are accessible to all because of his ability to fuse Jewish tradition, Western philosophy and literature, while allowing us to experience his approach of a life in ongoing dialogue with the Torah.

If you’ve read other books by Rabbi Sacks, you might find some familiar themes repeated. (Some of his ideas on covenant sounded like I had read them in his To Heal A Fractured World.)

But it’s the kind of repetition that is a good review, because his thinking on human behavior and matters of the spirit are so rich and lucid.

 

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