Moral teachings: Lessons to be learned from characters in the Torah

Dr. Lawrence Layfer

By Lawrence Layfer, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayeishev – Genesis 37:1−40:23

She caught him by his garment saying: lie with me…Genesis 39:12

We find ourselves this week much nearer the end of Genesis than the beginning. What have we learned from this book so far? There has been very little in the way of direct instruction to us. The unknown author of the 16th century Sefer Ha Chinuch (Book of Education) lists only three laws in all of Genesis: on procreation, on circumcision, and on a single dietary restriction (to avoid eating the sciatic nerve).

But despite the absence of structured guidance, we should have learned much by observing the behavior, and character, of the people we have met, and will be held accountable for this instruction. As Yoram Hazony teaches in his book “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture:” “The G-d of Hebrew Scripture holds individuals and nations morally responsible for their actions, even where they appear to have received no laws or commandments from Him of any kind…for humans should be able to discern laws, at least in their contours, even without explicit instruction from G-d.”

So, from Abraham’s hospitality and pleas for justice on earth and in Heaven, from Isaac’s reconciliation with his neighbors, from Judah’s acceptance of responsibility for past injuries and his attempts to make amends, and from Jospeh’s gracious acceptance of apologies for even the most heinous of personal attacks, we learn how our behavior can foster peace in and outside our homes. And from Cain’s jealous decline into fratricide, Sodom’s economic and physical violence toward visitors to their land, and Lavan’s entrapment of his kinsman Jacob into an indentured servitude, we learn the pitfalls our own humanity is susceptible to if we ignore, as Lincoln put it, the better angels of our nature.

But even without instruction, we just know some things are wrong. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, in his book “Living Each Week,” writes: “there are some actions which we know are wrong at the very moment we are confronted by them. We know this by virtue of our character, and by the ethics and morals that were instilled in us…when tempted to do something of questionable morality, first refuse, and only after that may you explain why.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in “Covenant and Conversation,” wishes to emphasize another negative theme that runs through the book of Genesis, in that it “appears no less than six (or seven) times…that of abuse of the gift of our sexual nature.” He cites several of these episodes: when twice to Abraham and once to Isaac “the husband fears he will be killed so that the local ruler can take his wife into his harem”; when to Lot in Sodom “the people cluster around Lot’s house demanding he bring out his two visitors so that they can be raped;” and when to Dina and her family “Shechem, a local prince, rapes and abducts Dina and holds her hostage.” There are others, including the implied sexual assault on the inebriated Noah by one of his sons, and the incest perpetrated by Lot’s daughters. And in this week’s Torah portion, we learn of Potiphar’s wife’s attempts at forced seduction of a powerless household slave, Joseph, and then upon his rejection of her advances, the false accusation of attempted rape.

Rabbi Sacks says Genesis is telling us that “sex is not about adultery, promiscuity, sexual license, seduction, rape or other sexually motivated violence,” which stems from exploitation of the powerless by the powerful: “So it was in the days of the Patriarchs. Sadly, so it is today.” He sees the lessons of Genesis pointing to a sexual ethic based on “a mutual act of commitment in which two persons, honoring their differences, each respecting the dignity of the other, come together in a bond of love…which is as close as we will ever get to understanding G-d’s love for us.”

Dr. Lawrence Layfer is Emeritus Professor at Rush Medical College and former Chair of Medicine at NorthShore-Skokie.

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