Lessons to be Learned from Our Great Ancestors
The conclusion of the book of Bereshith not only completes for us the
picture of the founders of the Jewish people – our fathers and mothers – but
to a great extent also concludes the purely narrative portion of the Torah.
There are precious few commandments or laws and ritual that emanate from
this first book of the Torah.
From now forward the Torah, while continuing to be a narrative of early
Jewish existence and life, develops into a law book detailing the
commandments of the Creator to the Jewish people. If so, then what is the
purpose of this lengthy beginning narrative? This is really the essence of
the question that Rashi quotes at the beginning of his commentary to the
Torah: “Should not the Torah have begun from the commandment regarding the
It is there that Rashi answers why it began with the story of creation but
the question remains: Why does the Torah continue the narrative regarding
the personal lives of our ancestors? To this question the rabbis responded
by stating that the events that occurred to our ancestors are sign posts for
the later events that would occur to their descendants.
Since this idea can only be validated in hindsight – only after the event
occurs to later generations can it be glimpsed as having been foretold by
events that occurred to our ancestors – it still begs the original question
somewhat. It is important to know that otherwise inexplicable events somehow
fit into a preexisting pattern. But what particular lessons can be learned
from the detailed narrative of the lives of our great ancestors?
There are general lessons about Jewish life that can certainly be gleaned
from the Torah narrative of Bereshith. And perhaps this idea of general
lessons is one of the reasons why the Torah invests so many words and
descriptions in this eternal book.
One lesson is that Jewish life is not an easy one. Being a small minority
and yet preserving a unique identity is no easy task. The struggle of our
ancestors to do so is therefore clearly delineated for us. Another life
lesson is that there are no guarantees in life especially as regarding
children. Yishmael and Esau are prime examples of this disturbing truth.
Another lesson is that in the absence of tolerance for the differences in
personalities and outlooks that will always be part of Jewish life and
society, terrible things can happen to the Jewish people as a whole. Witness
the narrative regarding Yosef and his brothers. A further lesson is that
others will always threaten Jewish survival, often by violence and murderous
intent. Nimrod, Abimelech, Pharaoh, Lavan, Shechem, Esau are but a few that
illustrate this point.
All of our ancestors were forced to face up to enmity, jealousy and the
duplicity of others. Another teaching to us is the power of the individual
and the power of an idea. Abraham and Sarah, practically alone, changed the
world with their idea and teachings of monotheism. The Torah further informs
us that “good” exiles such as Goshen Egypt can eventually turn out to be
less good. All of these lessons are essential to Jewish life and its
survival. The wise will ponder upon them and apply them well in one’s own
life and current society.
Rabbi Berel Wein