The story of Joseph begins with: “And Jacob dwelt in the land where his father travelled, in Canaan; these are the generations of Jacob. Joseph was 17 years old…” (Genesis 37:1-2) The peculiar construction of the sentences raises one of the essential questions about the closing chapters of Genesis: Is the central figure Joseph or Jacob?
Jacob’s presence hovers over the Joseph narrative. Even in the midst of Joseph’s successful ascendancy to the vice-regency of Egypt, he invokes Jacob, albeit indirectly: “And Joseph named his first-born Menasheh, meaning ‘God has caused me to forget my burdens as well as my father’s household.’” (41:51)
In this week’s portion, at the dramatic denouement in which Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, Jacob again is invoked: “I am Joseph; is my father still well?” (45:3)
Later, informed by the brothers that Joseph is still alive, Jacob prepares to descend into Egypt to see him. It is at this point that the biblical writers restore the otherwise absent presence of God to the Joseph narrative.
God confronts Jacob: “God called to Israel in a vision by night: ‘Jacob, Jacob…I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back….’” (46:2-4)
The story of Joseph and Genesis end with the death of Jacob and the bestowal of the death-bed blessing upon Joseph’s sons as well as the brothers themselves.
The sophisticated interweaving of the lives of Jacob and Joseph, played out over 20 years of parent-child separation, suggests the importance of the multiple levels of identity that each person carries.
When we tell our own story, it is the story of our life; but told from the perspective of our parents or our children, that same life takes on a related but distinct meaning. What we do and how it affects us may be quite different from how it affects others.
Each generation tells its own story, into which the stories of other generations are woven. We tell our children about the lives of deceased grandparents, but we inevitably present the stories as part of our own lives. And we tell our own parents about our children, but usually from the vantage point of being their parents.
The story of Jacob/Joseph reminds us of the ways in which the lives of our parents are woven into our own, and how we are woven into the lives of our children. Despite his effort at enforced amnesia, Joseph in fact did not forget “his father’s household,” as evidenced by his first question to his brothers: “Is my father still well?” Notwithstanding his Egyptian name, wife, and job, Joseph remains his father’s son.
This is why Jacob, at the end of his life, can transfer to Joseph the promise given him by God: “God will be with you and bring you back to the land of your fathers.” (48:21) What this week’s portion teaches is that the bonds of family and of identity are inseparable.
The story of each generation of the Jewish people is determined in two dimensions: how it inherits the legacy of the preceding generation and how it transmits that legacy to the succeeding generation. Our story is always also the story of our parents (and theirs, and theirs), and of our children (and, we pray, of theirs, and theirs).