Listening to Voices from Genesis on How to Live as Good Neighbors

By Rabbi Neal I. Borovitz

In the preface to his book Voices from Genesis, my teacher and friend Rabbi Norman Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Midrash at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, wrote:

“This book speaks about the human journey from birth to death as reflected in the development of the characters in the Book of Genesis. As such, it challenges all conscientious readers to reflect upon their lives and the stages of growth which they have experienced.”

Though you will be reading this column in mid-October or early November, I am writing this column during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These awesome and awe-filled days have been very different for me, and for all of us, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. My wife, Ann, and I have been living in Stockbridge since mid-March. We came up to what is usually our summer residence after Purim, with the intention of returning home by Pesach, when we, like so many of you, believed that the COVID-19 epidemic would be under control. Even after sharing Passover Seders with family on Zoom and attending online services on Shabbatot over these many months, I have still had a very hard time imagining, after being in crowded synagogues every Rosh Hashanah since my birth in 1948, what the High Holy Days would be like. I have been blessed this year to actually be able to attend a live service with our small Berkshire Minyan, outdoors under tents with open sides and everyone socially distanced and wearing masks.

One of the things I found extremely helpful this summer was re-reading Rabbi Cohen’s Voices from Genesis. It actually helped me wrestle with the challenges that this pandemic has placed before each one of us individually and all of us communally by suggesting how we can see our own lives and our own time through the prism of the narrative of our imperfect and sometimes dysfunctional Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. For example, both Abraham and Jacob leave the land that God had promised them when famine threatens the welfare of their families. All of our patriarchs and matriarchs are pictured for us in Genesis as lacking in some of their parenting skills and their social interactions with strangers; Abimelech, Pharaoh, Laban, or others in the narrative are also less than perfect.

Their human mistakes had consequences. In fact, I would argue that from the Genesis narrative of the world’s first siblings until today, God continues to ask us the question: “Where, and at what state of health and happiness, are your brother and your sister?” We humans continue to emulate Cain and avoid taking responsibility for the fate of our brethren and refuse to give God the response that The Eternal is requesting of us – namely, “Yes I am my brothers’ keeper and my sisters’ as well!”

I could use examples from Abraham and Isaac narratives to expound on this point, but I believe that the “voice from Genesis” that most distinctly speaks to me in 5781, this year that begins with us continuing to live with the plague of COVID-19, is the story of Jacob and, in particular, his two dreams.

Parsha VaYetze (Genesis 28:10-31:3) begins with Jacob, who is running away from home and is described for us as afraid and exhausted.

How often have we been deceived because of our own arrogance of believing that we are smarter than everyone else? When do we practice deception with those that we say we love? Is this truly a loving action? When does sibling rivalry devolve into Sinat Hinam (baseless hatred)? Is this an apt description of where we are as contemporary Jews? As contemporary Americans?

Jacob dreams a dream in which he sees angels depicted as going up and then down on the ladder? (28:12), and he awakes with a realization: “Surely God was in this place and I, I, did not know it” (28:16).

How often do we forget to be grateful for the angels that help us? How many times have we been in need of an angel and felt forgotten and/or betrayed just because we did not look around us and notice the angels that are with us? How many times have we mistaken enemies for angels and angels for enemies? Are we grateful for what we have? How do we show gratitude for what we have to God and others? 

The Kotzker Rebbe once rhetorically asked: “Where do you find God?”  His answer was: “Wherever and whenever you invite God in.”  This is the message I find in Jacob’s awareness when he awakes –  “God was in this place and I, I, did not know it.” How could Jacob, the inheritor of the spiritual mantle of Isaac and Abraham not know that God was in the place? Perhaps, in the spirit of one of Jacob’s descendants Sigmund Freud, it was due to the fact that  “I” that Jacob uses twice in this verse is the “I” of the ego that blinds him to the presence of others both human and Divine.

In Norman Cohen’s recounting of Jacob’s second dream – in which, the night before he is to encounter his estranged brother Esau, the patriarch wrestles with a “Being” and is given the name Israel, literally “God wrestler” – he differs from classic rabbinic commentators and asks us to see the story from the perspective of Esau. As I re-examined the subsequent meeting of Jacob and Esau in terms of contemporary sibling relationships, I thought about the anger on the part of Esau and the guilt on the part of Jacob that must have existed around caring for their aging parents. Imagine with me, how Esau must have felt. Jacob is returning home after 22 years, presumably to assert his right as the tribal leader. While Jacob was in Haran, Esau, we can assume, had been caring for their now aging parents and running the family's substantial cattle business. No wonder he approaches Jacob ready to do battle.

Does brotherly love win out? Do Jacob and Esau really forgive each other and make peace?

The text in Genesis 33 is unclear. I hear it saying “yes, but...” The reason I can honestly add the “but” is because in verse 4 of that chapter, the word “va-yishakehu” – which translates as “they kissed each other” –  is written with a series of dots above it. This word is found nowhere else in the Torah. One thousand years ago, Rashi wrote that “the dots could be a hidden clue to indicate either that Esau's kiss was insincere or, that after planning for 22 years to kill his brother, Esau's latent love for his twin wins out.” 

After their embrace and their kiss, Jacob and Esau each go their separate ways, but seem to remain friendly neighbors who respect each other’s rights to be different.  This year, as we Americans have had to deal with the plague of racism as well as COVID-19, I suggest to you that the dots over the word “va-yishakehu” might serve as a reminder that while Jacob and Esau never became united as one family, they did learn the lesson of the Cain and Abel story. Yes, we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper! Yes, despite our differences we must learn to live side by side as good neighbors. 

As Americans of the 21st century ,can there be any more relevant message for us to hear?


Rabbi Neal I. Borovitz is Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom (River Edge, NJ)  and a member of The Berkshire Minyan in Great Barrington.