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TORAH LIGHTS: Genesis Confronts Life, Love and Family
By Shlomo Riskin
Very few texts are as foundational to any nation as the book of Genesis is to the Jews.
The book begins with the most universal themes of creation, sin and punishment, then proceeds to tell the saga of the Jewish nation's Patriarchs, from Abraham's liberating journey to the Promised Land to his descendants' enslaving departure to Egypt. In the interim, the tales of friction between Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers, all read to Jews in general, and Israelis in particular, as if written here, now and about us.
And if this is so even for those who were not raised on these stories, it is obviously even more so for that majority of Israelis who indeed were told as infants about the snake, the flood and the Tower of Babel, the binding of Isaac, the rape of Dina and the selling of Joseph. Indeed, the stories of Genesis have for millennia been a dominant presence in Jewish childhoods, and as such played a constant role in shaping adult Jews' outlooks, metaphors and associations, as well as their interpretations of daily events, whether personal, communal, national or universal.
Shlomo Riskin - chief rabbi of Efrat and before that of Manhattan's Lincoln Square Synagogue - is no exception in this regard. As he recalls charmingly in the opening pages of Torah Lights: Genesis Confronts Life, Love and Family, his acquaintance with Genesis came during the Friday nights he spent in his grandmother Haya Bayla's home in Brooklyn. A heavily accented Polish immigrant who would not take any criticism of the "savior of the Jewish people, Franklin Delano Rosenfeld," she taught the future rabbi, through Genesis, what some would define as Judaism 101, namely anything and everything from the basics of courtship to her theologically novel concept of "divine disappointment."
In sharing these roots with us early on, Riskin displays his trademark ability to communicate what is dear to him by touching what is dear to his audience. In his exegesis, the rabbi, who during his decades here has painstakingly built a reputation as a bridge builder - between Israel and the Diaspora, Orthodoxy and modernity, Greater Israel and land for peace, and when possible also between Arab and Jew - tenderly transmits a quest for harmony in a world that so often seems hopelessly disharmonious.
In his discussion of Eve's creation as a solution to Adam's loneliness, for instance, Riskin says that just like humanity is tasked with overcoming sin, it is also demanded to overcome spousal control. Being the kind of rabbi that is common in America but all too rare in Israel - the one who dutifully acts not just as an impartial jurist but also as an involved social worker - Riskin unabashedly presents himself here as a sometime marriage counselor, a capacity in which he is "never put off when one partner screams at the other." Surely, he writes, shouting is far from recommended, but silence signals the much more dangerous condition of non-communication.
Indeed, Riskin, and this entire generation's experiences and anxieties are reflected throughout the book. The Flood reminds him of fascism, whose godlessness led to the rise of "demi-gods" who were reminiscent of the Aryan ubermenschen who believed they were predestined to rule mankind. The Tower of Babel reminds him of today's Islamist fundamentalism, which seeks to violently impose one faith on all people and whose symbol is the ziggurat, a protruding structure whose construction - according to the Sages - was more important to its builders than the lives it took.
ON A somewhat lighter note, Riskin's delightfully associative writing leads from Jacob's choices prior to leaving Laban's home, to a very contemporary - and intimately familiar - description of what is at stake: "a good job, a good income, a nice house, even respect from the local council."
Here, Riskin's Sisyphean search for harmony leads him to conclude that if tempted to follow Laban rather than Jacob's lead, the Jewish people would be "sitting happily with our paychecks," but at the same time replacing ladders that could connect between heaven and earth with ones that lead "to the world of Wall Street and investment, cattle and livestock."
Still, in a book that nonchalantly waltzes between discussions of contemporary themes like terrorism, vegetarianism and the art of negotiation, none seems as pertinent to Riskin as brotherly strife.
After having endured the tragic relationships of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau and Joseph's betrayal by the brothers, Riskin's arrival at the tearful encounter between Joseph and Benjamin feels almost like a desert hiker's long-overdue sight of an oasis.
"We can feel assured that Joseph drew Benjamin close to him, protected him, and shared with him the precious memories of the mother Benjamin never knew," writes Riskin, as he constructs the kind of rich detail of which Genesis is so famously devoid.
Citing Rashi's view, that the two were crying over the future destruction of God's sanctuaries in the biblical fiefdoms of Benjamin and Ephraim, Riskin says the two major sins in Genesis are Adam and Eve's rebellion against God and the brothers' betrayal of Joseph. Of the two, it is the latter that is worse, for it was the historic "fountain of causeless hatred between Jews."
Benjamin and Joseph's love was the antithesis of that blind hatred, having endured both the hatred of the other 10 brothers and the test of time. Still, during his 22 years in Egypt, including those following his rise to prominence, Joseph preferred to forget his family, until the tearful encounter which made him understand that "to deny his family would be to deny himself."
Today, too, many warring Jews have yet to understand both the futility and immorality of their conduct. Reading Rabbi Riskin may help them understand.