Genesis: It’s All About Family (Our Family)

Posted on December 20, 2023

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.

Getting to know our Jewish family story throughout the book of Genesis is such a gift. The twelve sons of Israel each have their own personalities but I would say six of them get more airtime throughout than the others.

Reuben, Shimon, Levi and Judah – Leah’s first four sons and Joseph and Benjamin – Rachel’s sons, get the most attention.

Reuben makes a lot of mistakes. He lays with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (Vayishlach), and though he convinces his brothers not to kill Joseph, he fails in his attempt to rescue Joseph from the pit. (Vayeshev)

Shimon and Levi massacred the Schemites after all that happened with Dinah (Vayishlach). Jacob expresses his disapproval of their actions. Shimon is held later as collateral when the other brothers go to bring Benjamin to Joseph (Miketz). And Levi would be the ancestral tribe of Moses, Aaron and Miriam along with all the other Kohanim like Pinchas, Elazar, Itamar– the priesthood. And for what it’s worth, I’m a Levite too. (Shemot)

Judah has a whole “B-Story” amidst the Joseph arc where he recognizes Tamar’s righteousness (Vayeshev) and it is her son Peretz who is an ancestor of King David. In this week’s parasha, (Vayigash) his growth is further shown as he stands up to take responsibility for Benjamin’s safe return. Ultimately, it is Judah’s name that we bear as Yehudim, as Jews and this tribe which produces the monarchy. 

Joseph of course is the dreamer who rises to power in Egypt (Vayeshev, Miketz, Vayigash) and is able to save his family from famine. In later years, it was Joseph and his son Ephraim, who are the namesake for the Northern Kingdom of Israel after it split from Judah. 

Benjamin is Joseph’s brother, his little brother. Joseph puts him through the worst of it, singling him out, but perhaps all just to bring the family back together. It is so clear in the parasha that Joseph has a unique relationship with Benjamin, son of his own mother. Benjamin would be the ancestor to Caleb, one of the two spies who didn’t report negatively about the land (Shlach Lecha), and is also the ancestor of Mordechai from the Purim story.

As we get closer to the end of Genesis, and our family story transitions to the story of our becoming a free nation, I find myself grateful to know these vignettes of our tribal ancestors. 

Each one has moments of bravery and righteousness, and each one has moments of failure from which they grow. The biblical characters are never perfect and this gives each of us a model for how to make mistakes, learn from them, and be the best we can be. As I heard recently, Judaism is one of the smallest peoples but one of the largest families.