Lineage: Bridging Kindness and Truth
Jacob and Joseph as a Replay of Abraham and Eliezer
He saw that he could not prevail against him, so he touched the socket of his thigh;
and the socket of Yaakov’s thigh was dislocated as he wrestled with him. (Genesis 32:36)
And when the time approached for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, “Do me this favor, place your hand under my thigh as a pledge of your truth and kindness (hesed v’emmet): please do not bury me in Egypt.” (Genesis 47:29)
Abraham was now old, advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. And Abraham said to the senior servant of his household, who had charge of all that he owned, “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.” (Genesis 24:1-4)
And now, if you mean to treat my master with truth and kindness (hesed v’emet), tell me; and if not, tell me also, that I may turn right or left.” (Genesis 24:27)
At the opening of Vayechi, Jacob asks Joseph to swear an oath that he will not allow his father to buried outside the land of Israel. Joseph places his hand under Jacob’s thigh and swears. The only other moment that we see a pledge like this occur in the entire Torah is when Abraham asks Eliezer to swear that he will not allow Isaac to marry among the Canaanites. Both Abraham and Jacob (who is called Israel) are concerned about continuity and legacy—ensuring the transmission of the covenant to the next generation. Abraham is concerned about finding his son a wife, but what is Jacob concerned about? He already has a dozen sons and countless grandchildren. His clan now numbers 70, a burgeoning nation.
Midrashim attest that Jacob’s concern is assimilation. His entire family has relocated to Egypt where the cultural pull poses an existential threat. It doesn’t matter that Jacob has a lot of progeny. The covenant is just as vulnerable as it was when Abraha only had one successor, Isaac, who was unmarried. Think about that.
Isaac is a concentrated bet. If it doesn’t work out, Abraham has no other candidates for succession, except perhaps by adopting Eliezer. But Jacob’s children become equally concentrated once they move to Egypt. The bet is not on the sons as individuals but on their capacity to withstand Egyptian cultural hegemony.
The act of taking Jacob back to his ancestors isn’t simply for Jacob, but is rather a forcing function on the living, to reinforce their identity. Jacob’s burial request comes not at the actual end of his life, but only when “the time approached for him to die,” because it suggests a pre-occupation. Now, again, in a strange land he wonders what will become of the next generation.
The Torah’s parallel between Eliezer and Joseph is deliberate. Joseph reveals himself to be a kind of servant of Jacob, while Eliezer reveals himself to be a kind of second son to Abraham. Both stories use the words “Hesed v’emmet.” Eliezer’s oath to Abraham instantiates “truth and kindness” but he is himself not treated with “truth and kindness” by Betuel and Lavan when on his mission. The deceit and egotism of these men contrasts with the honesty and self-effacement of Eliezer. So we learn that Joseph’s acceptance of the vow to bury Israel in the land of Canaan requires honesty and self-effacement. Joseph and Eliezer are foils to Lavan and Betuel. While kinship and bloodline are core to the project, they are insufficient. Lavan and Betuel are related to Rebecca by blood, yet prove rotten. Eliezer acculturates to the covenant without being connected by blood, and Joseph maintains a connection (reinforced by his physical resemblance of his parents) to the traditions of his ancestors despite acting like an Egyptian in daily life. Transmitting the covenant is not automatic. Despite their faith and trust in God, Abraham and Jacob take an active role in preparing the ground for transmission. Even a promise from God cannot totally assuage their sense of the fragility of the entire project.
The ancients made oaths by placing their hands under the thighs of their counter-parties, but the thigh is literarily significant, given that it is the locus of Jacob’s injury. Jacob is dislocated in his kaf yereicho, and it becomes the physical mark of his transformation into Israel. Abraham is also injured when he circumcises himself at the age of 99. Both men are spiritually transformed at the very moment that they receive a physical injury. Both injuries lead them to walk with a limp, at least temporarily. And both men make their handler-servants swear on the spots connected to this injury, the place of their original pain. They make them swear on the covenant to emphasize that the fate of the covenant is literally in their hands. Israel cannot be Israel if his descendants become Egyptian. While Joseph saves his family from famine, it will be in vain if it comes at the cost of the covenant.
Despite the deep experiential divide between Jacob and Joseph, the two are entwined. Consider this line “These are the generations of Jacob, Joseph… אֵ֣לֶּה ׀ תֹּלְד֣וֹת יַעֲקֹ֗ב יוֹסֵ֞ף) (Genesis 37:2). Jacob’s fate and Israel’s fate turn on the fate of Joseph. Joseph combines the archetype of Eliezer and Isaac, the servant and the blood relative, the foreigner and the family member. Joseph combines the emmet (truth) of being a Jacobite and the hesed (kindness) of being an Israelite. “The truth of being a Jacobite,” because you can’t choose your DNA or your family of origin; it simply a truth. “The kindness of being an Israelite,” because you can choose what you’re going to pass on and what you are going to do with your cultural inheritance.
In the quest for covenantal transmission, Abraham is concerned with biological reproduction: will my children have children? But Jacob is concerned with cultural reproduction: will my children remember Israel? Thus, the securing of his burial in Machpela proves to be as existential as Abraham’s securing of a wife for Isaac.
How do we reconcile the fact that God chooses Abraham and Jacob and promises them that their line will be great with the existential anxiety and urgency they exhibit, as if this promise might not come true? Many have cut their teeth on the determinism vs. free will problem as a matter of metaphysics. I will offer an ethical frame. It has to do with their doubled names: Abram/Abraham, Jacob/Israel. A person who is blessed but exerts no free-will, overcomes no obstacle, has not earned their second name. A person who receives a blessing but does not wrestle for it, has not earned their second name. We must struggle with ourselves and prevail. We must choose the covenant. No matter your talents and achievements, unless there is delta in your character and in your trajectory there is no “alpha” in your life. This is the paradox: the survival of the covenant requires a certain level of automation and predictability. “This is what Jews do.” But to remain a covenant rather than just a life-style it requires its upholders to engage in ongoing self-transformation. Abraham’s, Jacob’s, Eliezer’s, and Joseph’s lives are full of adventure, beginning with God’s original call “Lech l’cha” (go forth). Their change in locus is outward manifestation of so much inner travel. Thus, the covenant is a covenant not just to transmit observance or worldview, but to transmit the value of Lech l’cha, which must be repeated in every generation. It is when we depart from our place of origin, our given place, that we find we are most connected to our lineage and our tradition. We become bridges between hesed (choice) and emmet (thrownness).