Parshat Vayehi: How is social status determined?

‘THE BOOK of Genesis [gives us] an accurate picture of the values the Torah wishes to bequeath to us.’ (photo credit: IAN BAILEY-MORTIMER/FLICKR)
‘THE BOOK of Genesis [gives us] an accurate picture of the values the Torah wishes to bequeath to us.’
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.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.