As the beginning ends, the Exodus begins

(Photo: Unsplash/David Tomaseti)

As yet another year comes to an end, Jews finish reading the book of Genesis (Bereshit: 'In the beginning') and start on the book of Shemot (Exodus) – giving us plenty of time to prepare for the spring festival of Pesach, which next year takes place in the middle of April, coinciding with Easter.

The reading for this Shabbat is the last section of the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 47:48 - 50:26.

This year, more than most, families will be concerned about meeting up as they usually do at the end of the year. Some won't have seen each other for two years at least – some live on the other side of the world, and because of the situation we all find ourselves in at present, will be unable to travel.

Others live nearer each other and are hesitant for other reasons – not least that in visiting their loved ones they may succumb to the virus – and even worse – may inadvertently infect those they love the most, at the very time that they want to be together again.

So, for all those who are living far from loved ones, or who don't live far away but are nevertheless justifiably worried and concerned, just take thought for a moment on how we can learn how to cope with our own situations from the final passage in Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, which Jews and Christians share in common.

How on earth do you think that Jacob must have felt, after many years of absence, on learning that his son Joseph who he thought to be dead was actually alive and thriving in Egypt, which he was helping to flourish and grow as never before.

The Torah readings for the last couple of weeks have been about how Joseph reconciles with his brothers and meets up once again with his father. This is necessary before the Jewish people, now a nation, make their big break from Egypt and set out on their trek to pastures new, receiving the Torah from Sinai and entering the Promised Land of Israel.

Before he dies, Jacob blesses each of his sons and apportions roles for each of them in the life of the mind, body and spirit. Sadly, the Josephs of this world, which we interpret as all those Jewish people who shine in diaspora, will always arouse jealousy, while Judah, the fourth son, will always command respect.

Therefore the Jewish people will be named after Judah and be admired for their lion-like courage which will normally be kept in abeyance and shine forth only when absolutely necessary. The word Judah also signifies thanks and gratitude – first expressed by mother Leah, on giving birth to her fourth son.

In addition to blessing his children, Jacob is also the first biblical character to bless his grandchildren, Menasseh and Ephraim, the sons of Joseph. For this reason Jacob is known as the first Jewish grandpa.

Jacob knows that he is about to die and asks his sons to bury him in the ancestral Cave of Machpelah, which Abraham had originally bought as a burial site for his family. This is the burial site for Abraham, his wife Sarah, his son Isaac and wife Rebeccah, and also for Jacob's wife, Leah.

After accomplishing this task, which necessitated Pharaoh's permission to travel out of the country, at the end of the chapter, Joseph himself dies at the age of 110, and is himself eventually buried in Shechem

So, as we leave the Book of Genesis – the birth of the Jewish people – and start on our own Exodus from darkness into light, let us enter into the Exodus spirit with courage and gratitude, with hope and optimism, as the unruly children of Israel become in turn 12 tribes, one people, and finally a nation, a nation which the spirit of Chanukah has demonstrated to be a light unto the world.

And especially at this time of worry and concern, let us emulate the children of Israel, who themselves knew disappointment and despair, and yet carried on to their destiny and managed to survive to tell the tale.

Let us hope that the beginning of our global affliction is now ending and the exit that we all profoundly desire is on its swift passage towards us.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.