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From Genesis to the Great Gatsby

Can one break out of the prison of one's old wounds and unresolved traumas? The Joseph stories say yes

I love to read the last lines of great books first, because I’m always curious to see how an author condenses the book’s main themes or ideas in those last lines. I tend to read books pretty slowly and ponderously, often getting lost in their meanings and lingering over well written passages. I flip occasionally to the last line to stay motivated to finish reading. On the advice of a teacher of mine, I recently re-read The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about romance and material excess among wealthy Long Island residents during the roaring twenties. The last line of Gatsby is by now a well known comment about how we are imprisoned by our backgrounds:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

This last line is written masterfully. Its alliteration of the letter “b” makes us feel, not just imagine, that we are boats beating against the current of memory, old wounds and unresolved traumas. Because Gatsby takes place partly in the mansions of Long Island Sound, the imagery of boats caught in the current to describe imprisonment to the past is quite powerful.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

It’s a haunting line ending a haunting, depressing American classic, but is it true?

At first blush, in the context of the other sibling rivalry narratives of the biblical book of Genesis, the Joseph stories certainly seem to agree with Fitzgerald. Each of these tragic tales is a familiar echo of the story of Cain and Abel, the biblical foundation story of fratricide. Brother murders — or attempts to murder — brother, motivated by primitive rage at having been passed over unjustly by fathers divine and human, in favor of his sibling. For all its literary artistry, the Joseph story cycle is merely the latest example of the Torah’s dark pronouncement on the endless current of family dysfunction that bears us back ceaselessly into the past. It appears that we can never overcome the cyclical traumas of family conflict that began with the world’s first family.

However — and this is not really a spoiler alert — we’ll be comforted to know in advance that Joseph-the-brat will become Joseph-the-viceroy-of-Egypt. He will forgive and reconcile with his brothers for their treacherous treatment of him before Jacob, their father, dies. Joseph’s own two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, will be distinguished for the total absence of any mention of rivalry between them, despite Grandpa Jacob’s unrepentant insistence upon giving the younger boy a greater blessing than the one given his older brother. They will, in fact, be the sibling team that closes Genesis, with a blessing in their name that becomes the one invoked by Jewish parents upon their children during Shabbat. Repentance and forgiveness do happen, families can learn to love and let go, and all will be well. Cain and Abel are redeemed, and we can dismiss F. Scott Fitzgerald, correct?

As with most matters of human nature and morals, the Torah’s views are a bit more complex and nuanced. The Bible certainly doesn’t agree entirely with Fitzgerald that we are borne back ceaselessly into the past, because it emphasizes the ideas of human freedom, repentance and forgiveness. That is what distinguishes it and Judaism spiritually. However, these biblical affirmations come with an implicit caveat: the past may not bear us back ceaselessly, but freedom, forgiveness and family don’t come easy, and we will work ceaselessly to break out of that current.

This more subtle approach became clearer to me from a somewhat cryptic comment of the commentator, Rashi. In discussing the ketonet passim, Joseph’s coat of many colors that Jacob gave him as his favored child, Rashi refers to the only other place in the Bible where such a coat is mentioned, the disturbing account of Amnon and Tamar found in II Samuel, chapter 13.

Amnon and Tamar are half-siblings, and the children of King David. After deceiving his father, Amnon rapes Tamar, then, out of disgust for her, abandons her. Her full brother, Avshalom, plots against Amnon for two years, leads him into a trap then has him murdered. David witnesses all of this evil in his family with horror, yet he does nothing. His family continues to decline, and eventually Avshalom is also killed during his rebellion against his father. In the story, Tamar takes her ketonet passim, a tunic worn by unmarried daughters of the king, and rips it. This is an indirect but potent echo of Jacob ripping his clothes in grief when his sons present him with Joseph’s bloodied ketonet passim, thereby deceiving him that his favored son is dead. Jacob and Tamar are both physically alive, yet they both will spend the remainder of their lives in deadening grief. (To reinforce my point, allow me to point out that the story that follows the one about the brothers’ betrayal of Joseph and Jacob is about Judah and his daughter-in-law, who is also named Tamar.)

The ketonet passim is the “prop” that binds both stories into a larger meditation on the tragedies of enduring family dysfunction and violence. Amnon, Tamar, Avshalom and David could easily stand in for Jacob and his sons, each family sharing multiple layers of deception, evil behavior, betrayal and violence. Unlike Jacob and company, David and company have a story with no redemptive ending, a subtle reminder to the hopeful reader that family healing is not always possible. Yet I suggest that both stories are also part of an even larger meditation on the imperative of behaving like a mensch, even, and especially, when living in an unredeemed family and world. It is this meditation that takes us back to the other part of Cain and Abel’s story, which we often ignore.

By playing out their lusts, hatreds, misogyny, jealousies, and rage on the stages of their families, all the characters in these stories are really echoing Cain’s willful failure to do what God counsels him after he becomes enraged that God favored his brother’s offering:

Surely, if you do right,

There is uplift.

But if you do not do right,

Sin crouches at the door;

Its urge is towards you,

Yet you can be its master. (Genesis 4:7)

God’s message is actually rather simple, if indirect. Life, including family life, is at times profoundly unjust, or at least we experience it that way. We are constantly being goaded by the primitive rage, hurt and loss that are the results of those injustices, and we deserve great compassion for the wounds that were inflicted upon us. Yet those wounds never justify our wounding others. Our challenge is to own our self-pity and anger, to control the impulse to traumatize that accompanies our traumas, and to behave decently towards others. To put it in Great Gatsby terms, we may never stop being borne back to the past, but we don’t have to be the past. In its usual pedagogic fashion, the Bible presents us with both options that God presented to Cain, not by moralizing at us, but by telling us these two overlapping family stories with two different outcomes.

So, we do in fact beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. The question the Bible asks us is what we will do when we find ourselves there.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.