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January 5, 2023 9:00 am
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What the Torah Teaches About Heredity, Meritocracy, and Guilt

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avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

Reading from a Torah scroll in accordance with Sephardi tradition. Photo: Sagie Maoz via Wikimedia Commons.

As we come to the end of the Book of Bereishit (Genesis), we can look back and see a thread in the narrative of human beings grappling with the moral and spiritual challenges that we all face.

Isaac loved Esau more than Jacob. And if Jacob resented it, it did not stop him from preferring and favoring Joseph and Benjamin, the two sons of his favorite wife, Rachel. And consider the contrast between the extensive compliments he pays to Judah and Joseph, and the terse, comments he makes about the other brothers. Does this tell us something about his parental skills?

Was it because he recognized superior gifts in those two? Or was it a prediction that these two would become dominant and establish the two kingdoms — of Judea, and of Israel, the Ten Northern Tribes? The argument seems to be that favoritism encourages meritocracy over heredity. Neither Isaac nor Jacob , Judah, or Joseph were firstborn. But as we see, despite Jacob’s clear preference for them, the favorites did not necessarily produce winners.

The other theme is that of a guilty conscience. Conscience is a very modern idea, but the Torah gives several examples here. Jacob asks his son Joseph to make the arduous journey back to Canaan to bury him in the family tomb of the Cave of Machpelah, where he buried Leah. But he had failed to bury Rachel there. Instead, he buried her in Beth Lechem, only a short detour from his journey south. Now, as he asks for a favor, he feels guilty and needs to justify himself.

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The brothers didn’t feel guilty while they were selling Joseph, but only afterwards when they thought they were being punished for their earlier misdeeds and deception. Even after Joseph forgave them and reassured them that it was all a Divine plan, they still worried that after their father’s death, Joseph might take revenge. So despite the evidence that he had forgiven them, guilt spreads its long tentacles even if only in a person’s imagination.

All this is relevant today in the way we choose our leaders and our systems of governance. Do we look for intellectual brilliance, emotional intelligence, heredity, or a combination of all? Is there a perfect answer? Is there a perfect form of government appropriate everywhere?

The Torah is such a humane document. It records the struggles of imperfect human beings. Even so, the moral high ground is made as clear, in order to encourage us to try to recognize it even if we often fail to take it. The Talmud says, “The Torah was not given to (or for) angels.”

The author is a rabbi and writer, currently living in New York.

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