In our parasha, we first hear Ya’akov’s sons referred to as “Bnei Yisrael”—the sons of Israel, rather than “Yoseph’s brothers”. While Yoseph’s brothers may make individual choices and mistakes and Ya’akov’s sons may decide for the family, it is Bnei Yisrael who represent the entire Jewish nation—past, present, and future. It is by that designation that they take their first step into what will soon become Egyptian slavery and subsequent nationhood. What brings about this first nominal hint of history in the making? To answer that, we need to go back two parshiot, to the incident of Tamar and Yehuda.
While the story of Ya’akov was a story of deceit, the story of Yoseph is a story of tests—wheels within wheels, and intrigue within intrigue. It can be easy to miss the most subtle test of all—that of Yoseph himself. Yoseph is the prototype assimilated Jew—the Jew who rises to the top by dint of clear thinking and hard work, but who has to jettison his connections to his past to do so. Can he reclaim his identity before it is to late?
The story of Yoseph is propelled along by the motive force of dreams. These dreams come in pairs, and each of them is a window into a possible future—perhaps a future that would never come to pass had the dream never been told. Where do dreams untold go? Perhaps we’ll never know. After all, we are the product of those that were told.
The Egyptian experience, not as a historical fact, but as a deeply-felt cultural motif, penetrates and pervades all subsequent Jewish law. The commandment to “love the stranger” appears no fewer than 36 times in the Biblical text, and serves as the basis of derivation of countless later customs and laws. The relevance of the Exodus story goes beyond mere factual truth; its true significance lies in what we’ve built on it and how it has molded us as a people who, in every generation, have made it our own.
Sefer B’reishit (the Book of Genesis) takes us into a frame of reference that is often inaccessible to us nowadays. It leads us into the deepest layers of human consciousness, before we were recognizably human. While paleontology can show us to ourselves only from the outside, B’reishit takes us inside our own seminal moments and shows us to ourselves from the position of what might have been.