The book of Genesis concludes with Yosef’s story. It’s worth noting that Yosef is its most prominent protagonist, with roughly a quarter of the book revolving around Yosef as the central character.

As an adolescent, Yosef was his own worst enemy, sharing his vivid dreams with his brothers, who were already jealous of their father’s close relationship with him. Anticipating that this arrogant dreamer was inherently unworthy and would pose a threat to their great ancestral legacy, his brothers unceremoniously deposed him, selling him into ignominious slavery. Yet, this hero of heroes was undeterred and climbed his way from the depths of slavery and false imprisonment to the heights of Egyptian aristocracy.

The story reaches it’s climax with Yosef positioned as the fully naturalized Egyptian Tzafnas Paneach, ruler of Egypt. In a stunning reversal, his brothers unwittingly appear before him, humbly supplicating for his benevolent assistance:

וַיָּבֹאוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִשְׁבֹּר בְּתוֹךְ הַבָּאִים כִּי־הָיָה הָרָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן. וְיוֹסֵף הוּא הַשַּׁלִּיט עַל־הָאָרֶץ הוּא הַמַּשְׁבִּיר לְכָל־עַם הָאָרֶץ וַיָּבֹאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ־לוֹ אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה. וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וַיַּכִּרֵם וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם וַיְדַבֵּר אִתָּם קָשׁוֹת וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מֵאַיִן בָּאתֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן לִשְׁבָּר־אֹכֶל. וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וְהֵם לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ  – The sons of Israel were among those who came to procure rations, for the famine extended to the land of Canaan. Now Yosef ruled the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. Yosef’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Yosef saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, “Where do you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to procure food.” For though Yosef recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. (42:5-8)

This moment is arguably the moment the entire book turns on. Up to this point, families fracture and go their separate ways because they cannot get past their differences. But something different happens this time because Yosef does something different.

To be sure, Yosef remembers the dreams he once had that his siblings would one day bow before him. This moment utterly vindicates him – his dreams are literally becoming a reality right now! All the difficulties in his life, from his brothers’ torment at home, through slavery and prison, fighting to get by on his own, were because his brothers thought he was a conceited upstart. Little did they know that the jumped up dreamer had been a prophet all along!

After so many years of wrongful hurt; if he were to reveal his true identity now, can we begin to imagine the sense of power and satisfaction that those words might be laden with? How tantalizingly sweet would those words taste rolling off our tongue?

Yet, faced with the ultimate I-told-you-so moment, Yosef turned away from that path and towards the road to reconciliation, paving the way for the family to let go of past differences successfully. The Kedushas Levi highlights how gracious and magnanimous Yosef was to avoid rubbing in his complete and total vindication. Yosef recognized who they were, remembered precisely what they had done, and only made sure they could not recognize him in the very moment they bow and submit!

Yosef refused to kick them when they were down, and would ultimately offer a positive spin on the entire story, that God had ordained the whole thing to position him to save them from their predicament – שָׂמַנִי אֱלֹהִים לְאָדוֹן לְכָל־מִצְרָיִם / לֹא־אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי הָאֱלֹהִים / כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם.

Fully grown-up, Yosef learned that it was never about him, and he recognized that he was just a tool. There was no glory to be had in his wealth, success, or even his prophecy, except to the extent he could use it to help others and heal the rift in his family. No-one had properly understood his childhood dreams; they wouldn’t bow because he was better than them but because he was going to save them all. From this point on through the end of the story, he repeatedly makes sure to feed and care for his brothers and their families.

He acted from his heart, not his pain. He was better than the brothers who had once tried to break him. He healed, rather than staying bitter.

If your family is even on speaking terms, some members are probably at odds a little too often, and there are probably quite a few I-told-you-so moments. It’s the cycle of most of the book of Genesis; it might even be the natural course of life. But as natural as it is, it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not inevitable.

We should remember that the greats that we look up to faced those moments with compassion and humility. We should remember that choosing to react that way has the power to defuse decades of hurt. The legacy of these stories is that we have the ability to choose to avert the cycle of hurt and fill that void with healing. Be the person you needed when you were hurting, not the person who hurt you.

Be the person that breaks the cycle.

The formative stories in the book of Genesis are powerful and moving, and they tell us where we come from and what our heroes and role models looked like, and how they got there. When we read the stories, we recognize the individual protagonists’ greatness, but the stories also include plenty of failings in every generation.

In the stories of Yakov’s children, there is constant tension, a sibling rivalry for all intents and purposes. Yet Yakov’s children are the first of the Jewish People, the שבטי י-ה; the first generation to be entirely worthy of inheriting the covenant of Avraham collectively – מטתו שלימה. While the Torah’s terse stories cannot convey to us or capture who these great people truly were, we shouldn’t pretend that the Torah doesn’t deliberately frame the stories a particular way, characterizing and highlighting certain actions and people. We should sit up and notice and wonder what we are supposed to learn from the parts that don’t seem to fit with the picture of our greats.

Each generation of our ancestral prototypes added something – Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov. What are we supposed to learn from the obvious disputes and strife between Yosef and his brothers?

R’ Yitzchak Berkovits suggests that the story’s lesson is how close the brothers came to very nearly killing one of their own in Yosef. Their inability to tolerate Yosef tore the family apart, with a straight line from their disagreements to two centuries of enslavement in Egypt.

While we can’t get to the final historical truth of the matter, the characterization is unequivocal. As much as we believe that there is a right and wrong approach to life and that we fight for what we believe in, we must love the people we disagree with. If in our pursuit of truth and justice, we end up dividing the family, hating and alienating others, we have gotten lost along the way.

All the same, what was it they were fighting about?

The Sfas Emes suggests that Yosef’s criticisms stemmed from the fact that he had different, that is, higher, standards than his brothers. Being the closest to his father, he was the best placed to claim authority from his father’s teachings; and being so highly attuned, he was sensitive to his brother’s nuanced foibles. Yosef’s brothers could not dispute Yosef’s greatness but determined that his standards were destructive.

It’s not so hard to see why. They knew they were the heirs of Avraham’s covenant, but it would be intolerable to have someone so demanding and sensitive policing you day and night. It was untenable to them and completely nonconducive to a viable Jewish future.

The brothers would come to see that Yosef wasn’t a threat, that he had been on the right track all along – just not the right track for them. They came to that realization years too late, and the family was mired in Egypt for centuries as a result.

R’ Yitzchak Berkovits highlights that the lesson for us is learning to live with such high standards, where theory and practice meet.

In our daily grind, we readily see the constant tension between the razor-sharp edge of absolute truth classing with the realpolitik of practical rather than moral or ideological considerations. It’s impossible to measure and quantify our values, and where we draw the line, it’s deeply personal and subjective to specific circumstances – it hinges on so many practicalities.

One of the lessons that jump out of the story is confusing theory and practice. Yosef and Yehuda never clash about what’s true, or what matters. They know how valuable Avraham’s legacy is, but they could not agree on what it was supposed to look like. And while it’s a fine line to tread, it’s clear that we should tolerate difference in practice, but not a difference in values.

Like Yosef, we mustn’t be afraid of having high standards. But if we aren’t quite ready to live that way, we should at the very least tolerate others who do have high standards. Our society has to tolerate the person who wants us to be better, just as equally it has to tolerate the person who can’t quite live up to that just yet.

Two of the most fundamental principles of the Torah and life are loving your neighbor and the image of God – ואהבת לרעך כמוך / צלם אלוקים, which both speak to the dignity of others. If we only reserve love and compassion for those just like us and think we are upholding the Torah’s greatest principles, we should reorient ourselves for a moment because these principles demand nothing of us. Unless we can tolerate the existence of people who are not like us, we ignore our responsibility to share respect and empathy with the world.

True to life, we know you can’t teach someone anything when you’ve chased them away.

After Yosef revealed himself to his brothers, he invited their entire family to relocate from the famine-plagued Canaan to the fertile and prosperous land of Egypt under Yosef’s protection and influence. When Yakov discovered his long lost son was alive and well, he was overwhelmed at the prospect of reuniting the family before he died. But he had reservations, and God had to reassure him:

וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי הָאֵל אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ אַל־תִּירָא מֵרְדָה מִצְרַיְמָה כִּי־לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימְךָ שָׁם – And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Don’t be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation”. (46:3)

Undoubtedly, God was speaking to some nerves or anguish Yakov was experiencing at the idea of leaving the land of his fathers. Yakov was afraid of the unknown, leaving the safety, security, and comfort of the land his family had grown up. But fear makes us withdraw, and maybe this is the point God was addressing.

And God’s reassurance contains a powerful notion that reverberates through the ages. Difficulties don’t have to diminish – they can be the making of us. Strength and growth come with pain and sacrifice.

Of 3,000 or so years of Jewish history, perhaps 400 at best were sovereign and secure, with the rest in one exile or another. Yet the trajectory has only been upwards. There is no greater freedom than knowing we can thrive in exile.

It’s ultimately true of life itself – we build through overcoming adversity with self-sacrifice. So counterintuitively, outstanding achievements are not in spite of adversity; they are a product of it. Leaning into the challenge will be the making of you – כִּי־לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימְךָ שָׁם – that’s the only place it can happen.

When everything is easy, it’s hard to be our best, and Yakov’s life embodied this. His family could only be reunited in a foreign land, paving the way to slavery and eventual redemption. His life was truth and greatness, but always with pain and on the run.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that this theme is recursive – time and again, the resistance is not the obstacle – it’s the catalyst. The obstacle is the way. It’s the story of the matza on Pesach; it’s the story of Purim and Chanuka. Overcoming the challenge is what lets us become great.

That’s not to diminish in anyway the severity of the differnet ordeals life hurls our way – the struggle is indeed very real.

But we don’t have to be shackled by our shackles; the challenges can give us a siege mentality. The key to unlocking this superpower is God’s message to humans.

Don’t be afraid.

Yakov had a difficult life. In childhood, he was overlooked by his father and had to flee from his murderous brother. In the place he took refuge, he was an indentured servant to his swindling father in law and was betrayed by his firstborn son. Later on in life, he lost his great love in childbirth and lost one of his sons under acrimonious circumstances.

Yet the Torah says that Yakov lived the best years of his life as an elderly man in Egypt – וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם / וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט.

After a life of pain and misery in exile, how could his final years turn out to be the best years of his life?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that like exercise, resistance can do a world of good. By adapting to resistance, we have become stronger. Yakov could be in exile and still recognize that his life had come full circle, and he could live out his days in peace and tranquility – even far from home.

At Seder, after quoting Yakov’s happy years in Egypt, we eat Maror sandwiched between Matza. Matza is the bread of freedom, which is also the bread of affliction; they complement each other. The Sfas Emes explains that we cannot celebrate being free without owning the fact we were slaves as well.

Setbacks and comebacks are the ebbs and flows of life. It’s simplistic to put a label on things in a vacuum, because life is rarely black and white, and mostly a long continuum of grey.

There is no such thing as a life without its share of problems, and it’s no good waiting on one trouble to end in order to move on to something else. The multitude of events in our life form one cohesive canvas, and we have to be present for each moment.

The Jewish People have been in exile for far longer than they haven’t. We hope for a World to Come, a utopian epoch of peace and wisdom. And yet, we don’t need that time to come in order to live our best lives. There is beauty and goodness in the daily grind of today – if we only look for it. So get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Because the good stuff happens outside your comfort zone.

Deception is one of the recurring themes in Yakov’s life story – both as perpetrator and victim.

Yakov opportunistically bought Esau’s birthright and masqueraded as Esau to get Yitzchak to give him Esau’s blessing. This set a course of events in motion, wherein Yakov had to flee to his cunning uncle Lavan, who deceived Yakov by substituting Leah in Rachel’s place, causing lifelong tension between them and their children; culminating in the brothers’ abduction of Yosef and the subsequent cover-up of Yosef; which ultimately led the family and the Jewish People to the mire of Egypt. Yakov recognized this constant struggle at the end of his life when he met Pharoh:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה:  מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם – Yakov said to Pharoh: ‘The days of the years of my journey are a hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, they have not approached the days of the years of the life of my fathers in their days.’ (47:9)

Yakov recognized his difficulties, and we ought to as well. It is simplistic to dismissively hand wave and whitewash Yakov’s responsibility for the way his life unfolded. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch teaches how important it is to acknowledge how the Torah characterizes our heroes’ flaws proudly, so what we can learn that although perfection is elusive, excellence is not. The Torah suggests that Yakov bore some blame for hurting Esau:

כִּשְׁמֹעַ עֵשָׂו, אֶת-דִּבְרֵי אָבִיו, וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה, גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד – When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried with an extremely great and bitter cry (27:34)

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights that the Torah narrates emotions sparingly, and the Zohar suggests that these tears alone were responsible for thousands of years of suffering.

When Yitzchak was on his deathbed, Rivka knew that Yitzchak could not see Esau for the man he truly was, so she instructed Yakov to act like Esau, and Yakov got Esau’s blessing:

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ, הָאֱלֹהִים, מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן, וְתִירֹשׁ יַעַבְדוּךָ עַמִּים, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ לְאֻמִּים – הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ; אֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר, וּמְבָרְכֶיךָ בָּרוּךְ – May God give you of the dews of heaven, and the fats of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let people serve you, and nations bow down to you. Lord over your brother, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be every one that curses you, and blessed be every one that blesseth you. (27:28,29)

This is the big blessing of the story that Yakov fought for, and it is a little underwhelming. R’ Jonathan Sacks sharply notes that this blessing for wealth and power is clearly not the blessing of Avraham’s covenant, which is about family and the Promised Land. Yishmael received blessings of power and wealth, and Esau could as well.

If we read the story closely, once Yakov and Rivka’s ruse was discovered and had Yakov had to flee, his father Yitzchak blessed him one last time, transparent with who he was speaking to:

וְאֵל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ, וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ; וְהָיִיתָ, לִקְהַל עַמִּים. וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ אֶת-בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ–לְרִשְׁתְּךָ אֶת-אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לְאַבְרָהָם – May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of people; and give you the blessing of Avraham – to you, and your children together; that you may inherit the land of your residence, which God gave to Avraham. (28:3,4)

By imparting Avraham’s blessing to Yakov with no pretenses, the Torah suggests that the entire ruse and struggle was entirely unnecessary, and the strife and deception that characterized Yakov’s life began with an honest misunderstanding.

God’s blessing is abundant; not exclusive or zero-sum. Yishmael and Esau can also have Gods’ blessing; it will not detract from our own.

Perhaps when Esau and Yakov met again years later, Yakov had learned this lesson, and that was why they could reconcile:

קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי אֲשֶׁר הֻבָאת לָךְ, כִּי-חַנַּנִי אֱלֹהִים וְכִי יֶשׁ-לִי-כֹל; וַיִּפְצַר-בּוֹ, וַיִּקָּח – “Please take my blessings that I gift to you; because God has been gracious with me, and I have enough,” he urged him; and he took it. (33:11)

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the material gifts to Esau were the literal return of the material blessing – קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי – and bowing to Esau showed his deference to Esau’s place; acknowledging the wrongdoing of their youth. Instead of trying to usurp Esau’s position in the family and take his blessings; Esau could be Esau, and Yakov could be Yakov – וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו, יֶשׁ-לִי רָב; אָחִי, יְהִי לְךָ אֲשֶׁר-לָךְ.

Only once Yakov fights off the specter of trying to be like Esau does he earn the name and title of Yisrael, which has a connotation of straightness.

Perhaps the lesson is straightforward. We each have our own blessings, and we mustn’t seek our brother’s blessing. His blessing is his, and yours is yours.

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

Yakov had a difficult life. He had fled his childhood home to live in hiding from his brother; he’d been cheated and overworked by his father in law; he’d been denied marriage to the love of his youth; he’d been betrayed by his firstborn son; he’d seen the rape of his daughter; he’d seen his children fight; he’d lost a son, missing and presumed death for 22 years; he’d seen his great love Rachel die in childbirth. This was not the future he had sought for his family.

When Yakov meets Paroh for the first time, he comments on how old Yakov appears, and Yakov laments his life:

וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה, אֶל-יַעֲקֹב: כַּמָּה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֶּיךָ. וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה: מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם – Paroh said to Yakov, “How many have been the days, the years of your life?” Yakov said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my journies are one hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers, in the days of their journeys.” (47:8-9)

A good life is one of peace, understanding, and love. With such misfortune, he was understandably bitter. Yet once his family resettled in Egypt, his perspective changed:

וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, שְׁבַע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה; וַיְהִי יְמֵי-יַעֲקֹב, שְׁנֵי חַיָּיו–שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, וְאַרְבָּעִים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה – Yakov lived in Egypt for seventeen years, and Yakov’s days, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty seven years. (47:28)

Just 17 years after Yakov bemoaned his miserable life, Yakov had lived life to it’s fullest – וַיְחִי.

How did he re-frame his outlook?

The Nesivos Shalom explains that to tolerate suffering, it needs to be worth it. Yakov going to Egypt was the beginning of a dark period in the nascent Jewish people’s history, and he believed that he had failed. But reunited with his family, in harmony, he could look back and see that there had been a point, and it was worth it.

The butterfly effect describes the concept that small causes can have large effects. Every wrong turn down the broken road still led them to this point.

The maturity and introspection it took to recognise this could only happen once Yakov attained some form of peace. It gave value to everything he had been through, and he could finally be content and fulfilled.

The hand that writes history sometimes holds our hands too; if we only looked closer.

The books of the Torah transition into each other, beginning new phases in the Jewish people’s development.

The book of Shemos is known as Sefer HaGeula – the Book of Redemption, or Exodus, named for how the Jewish people achieved liberty and independence, culminating in Sinai. But only the first quarter addresses this. The remainder addresses the Mishkan and its requirement.

What does the Mishkan have to do with redemption the book is named after?

The Ramban explains that the book measures the full spectrum of redemption. Redemption of the body is incomplete without redemption of the soul. The nation only had a purpose once the Torah was given a home among the community, and the community could carry the Torah into their lives.

The conclusion of Bereishis concludes with the same theme.

The Ksav Sofer explains that Yaakov descendants bless their children to be like Efraim and Menashe, who were excellent Jews worthy of being considered as if they were Yakov’s own, while simultaneously aiding Yosef with the administration of Egypt’s government.

The story of Bereishis ends in the rise of the Jew in both spiritual and earthly pursuits on a personal level, and the story of Shemos extends that to the national scale.

Some communities have a lovely custom that parents bless their children before the Friday night meal; the father blesses his sons to be like Efraim and Menashe and blesses his daughters to be like the Matriarchs.

Of all the potential role models in our heritage, why are Efraim and Menashe the figures we want our sons to emulate in particular?

Hierarchies are inherent to family dynamics and structures. It is highly irregular to see “generation jumpers.” From the entire generation of Yakov’s grandchildren, they alone were considered equivalent to their uncles a generation earlier.

My Zaide explains that to excel as a Jew while born into Egyptian aristocracy is a hard thing. In comparison, it’s easy to be Yakov’s son in Yakov’s house.

Perhaps the blessing is about our hope that our children overcome everything in their way, no matter the odds.

My father explains that part of the family dynamic in the Torah is that brothers jealously compete with each other. The first pair of brothers who get along are Efraim and Menashe. Neither objected when Yaakov crossed his hand, predicting the younger son for greater things. Each was content for himself as well as his brother.

Perhaps the blessing is about their relationship with family, that they build each other up, instead of tearing each other down.

The book of Genesis is full of stories of jealous siblings whose strife tore their families apart. The book concludes with a family that broke the mold, with a story of siblings who accepted that life bestows different degrees of talent, ability, and opportunity.

It’s also possible that this was a trait exhibited by Rachel when she gave Leah the signs, dooming herself to years of solitude.

A family that can accept their differences is one that has a peaceful future ahead, and it’s a fitting blessing for our children.