Parsha This week: Vayechi. [I need to read it but I’ve gotten distracted because commentary is always easier to read than verse.] It’s the last book in Genesis, which in its body moves from Adam and the fall through Noah, Abraham, Issac, Jacob, and Joseph.
Yanki Tueber, a Chasidic columnist, offers a light commentary on Genesis when he compares the six major figures above to six forms of perfection. Adam begins perfect only to seek imperfection, Noah exemplifies a sort of rules-based perfection (given detailed instructions, he built the ark), Abraham is perfected through the love of G-d, Isaac is perfected in selflessness, Jacob in harmony, and Joseph in action.
This, of course, points to something more interesting and tragic. Using the broadest of brushes (no really… it’s that broad), we can see Genesis as a transformative book that begins when perfected (but static) man is driven out of paradise. For the rest of the book, the better fraction of man—exemplified through the patriarchs*—seeks G-d in the midst of social and moral upheaval, first by following all G-d’s laws (Noah), then by seeking G-d out of love (Abraham) so intense that it leads to loss of self (Isaac). All too late, however: man is cast from the garden and is forced to define its role in creation, first through harmony and the synthesis of social structure (Jacob) and finally through participatory action in the larger outside world (Joseph).
What a perfect—if overly generalized—sense of a kid thrown out of the home, forced to make his way in the big city:
I’m sorry, I’ll follow the rules, I love you, look, I’m not even self-important any more, okay, I can do this, okay, here I am.
There are two lessons in this:
First: perfection, which was a static (or at least unconscious) thing in the Garden of Eden, has become dynamic post-fall. Perfection is no longer limited to a single form and so our ideas of perfect behavior or perfect people fall short as they converge on the concept of perfection that favors Adam and Noah-like stasis.
Second: just as the Patriarchs reflected a spark within the wash of their own culture, so there is a tiny spark in each of us that moves from perfection to perfection, seeking to return to the home, seeking G-d first as the child who will follow the rules but offers nothing, then through gnosis, and finally as an entity standing separate and self-aware, ready to build something new, to participate in creation, to offer a gift back to G-d even as Paradise itself recedes in the face of the world.
*Okay, I’m using this term a bit loosely.