Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Torah’s Special Genetic Code

During Biblical times, our ancestors did not understand genetics, DNA codes, chromosomes and the transmission of physical attributes, as we understand them today. While the sages do note physical similarities that existed between kinsmen, they also viewed fate as somewhat genetic as well.

Parashat Vayeshev begins (Genesis 37:1-2) with the following words: “And Jacob lived in the land where his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob, Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brothers…” What does the phrase, “These are the generations of Jacob, Joseph…” mean? A Midrash (Bereshit Rabba 84:6) underscores the closeness between Jacob and Joseph and how their fates were intertwined. It further explains: “All that happened to this one (Jacob) also occurred to this one (Joseph).”

Both Jacob and Joseph were born to mothers who struggled with fertility; both of their mothers gave birth to two children; both had siblings who hated them and desired to kill them; both were shepherds; both were blessed with wealth; both were exiled outside the Land of Israel, and both married women raised outside the Land of Israel and had children outside the Land of Israel. Both were elevated due to dreams. Both descended to Egypt, died and were embalmed there, and both of their remains were transported back to be buried in the Land of Israel.

This Midrash is not merely teaching that the lives of Jacob and Joseph shared similar fates. This Midrash implies that Joseph’s values and piety actually mirrored that of his sainted father.

In the Torah, ideological kinship is vastly more important than genetic similarity. Our sages noted that Abraham and Isaac physically resembled each other; that Lot, Abraham’s nephew, looked like his uncle; and the Divine signs of matriarch Sarah re-appeared after her death when her son Isaac brought his bride Rivka into their home. The cloud over the home re-appeared, the challah which remained fresh all week was blessed and the candle burning all week was seen once again. Esau and Jacob, on the other hand, looked vastly different.

The sages were not at all interested in physical likenesses. The aforementioned resemblances highlight behavioral and attitudinal unity among different individuals. Genetic likeness means very little. The Jewish goal has always been for one’s children to resemble one’s actions and values, not necessarily their physicality. Righteous converts, who genetically may be distant from most of their Jewish brothers and sisters, are fully embraced as Jews, not because we value the genetic code, but rather the honor code of virtuous actions.

Joseph’s status as “righteous,” derives from his ability to withstand the seductive overtures of the wife of his master Potiphar. The Talmud (Sotah 36b) explains how he was able to avoid sin. “At that moment the image of his father came to him and appeared before him in the window.” It could be argued that the physical similarity the two men shared enabled Joseph to remain pure and holy.

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