It was a very heady experience long ago.
When I was a very young rabbi in Columbia, MD, the public library invited me and other “leading citizens” to submit a short essay for display in a lobby exhibit about my favorite book.” I chose the Book of Genesis, the first Book of the Bible.
In the years since then, I have—this should be no surprise – read many, many books. Nevertheless, if now, when I am a very old rabbi, someone offered me the same opportunity, Genesis would still be my choice.
Genes is the basis of all subsequent Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought.
It begins with a story of creation fundamentally different from any of the countless creation myths the ancient world produced. It is also different than any of the scientific theories of the world’s origin scholars have conceived.
The ideas that story puts forth remain as instructive today as when it came to light thousands of years ago.
Genesis present a view of God completely different from that proposed in any other ancient literature. When I was a child in religious school, we learned that our God was different for two reasons. One, they worship many gods, we worship only One, and two our God is invisible while they bowed down to idols.
As I grew, it became clear to me that while those two distinctions are important, a third is even more significant: God’s agenda. Only the God of the Bible wants more than anything else for humans to create a just, caring compassionate society on earth.
The next ten chapters describe three attempts by God to have us humans do just that. Spoiler alert: They all fail.
In a fourth attempt, God chooses Abraham and Sarah, and makes a Covenant with them that endures to this day:
In that Covenant God promised:
- To protect them
- Give them children
- Make them a permanent people
- Give them the land of Israel
In return God charged them and their descendants (that’s us!)
- To be a blessing (GN 12:2)
- To study, understand and follow God’s teachings (GN 17:1)
- To be examples and teach their descendants to be examples of “Righteousness and justice.”
God sets them forth on a Covenantal journey to teach the world God’s priorities. Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel continue the journey. They each face and overcome difficult challenges in assuming or growing into their Covenantal destinies. The Book concludes with the magnificent Story of Joseph, a story of dreams, jealousy, deception and ultimately, reconciliation.
The great beauty of Genesis is that all its characters – like all of us – are deeply flawed. They are capable of callous cruelty but also great moments of self-realization, forgiveness and redemption.
Beginning Saturday, January 21, from 10 to 11 AM and continuing through April, I shall Torah study sessions that will unpack in detail the ideas I present in this essay. I invite you to join us. If you would like the zoom link for our sessions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org