Guest Blog Post from Rabbi Nadia Siritsky
In a famous Charlie Brown cartoon the children are looking at the clouds and Linus says ‘See that one cloud over there? It sort of looks like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous portrait painter. And that other group over there – that looks as though it could be a map of British Honduras. And then do you see that large group of clouds up there? I see mythology in the making, with some of our earliest historical figures depicted by the shifting clouds.’ Then Lucy says, ‘That’s very good, Linus. It shows you have quite a good imagination. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?’ And Charlie says, ‘Well I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsey but now I’ve changed my mind.’
Sometimes, when we read our Torah, we may feel like Charlie Brown, as we try to understand where our rabbis are coming from in their commentaries. Many of you will have probably noticed by now, that for our rabbis, everything is susceptible to interpretation, including even the physical appearance of the Torah text, the size and shape of the letters or the spaces between words.
In our Torah scroll the parashiot are all separated by an intervening space, all except parashah Vayechi. Our rabbis understand this anomaly as holding the key to the inner meaning of our Torah portion which is entitled: Vayechi: he will live, and which speaks instead about Jacob’s death. The lack of separation between Torah portions calls us to become mindful of the ways in which death and life are often intertwined, and the ways in which death can lead us back into life. Joseph gathers his sons together, to offer them his blessing and wisdom, and in so doing, he lives on through them, and through all of us.
There is a deep spiritual meaning in this seamless transition from life to death. It calls us to be more attentive to our own lives and those close to us. We all live in a space in between. We rarely acknowledge it, certainly in our death denying culture. But Judaism calls us to be mindful of it. Our rabbis tell us to try to live every day as if it might be our last, with a belief that this might inspire us to make choices that are less motivated by temporary concerns, and more in line with our deeper values and the way that we want to be remembered after we are gone. The awareness that we are always hovering between death and life need not scare us, but rather should prompt us to keep searching for light and meaning. With this in mind, we turn our attention to Jacob, hoping that his parting words might illumine our own shadowy doubts regarding our future.
Our rabbis comment that Jacob on his deathbed intended to share with his sons a glimpse of things to come, but he was denied the vision. The noteworthy absence of any defining space in the Torah scroll at the beginning of Vayechi suggested to the rabbinic imagination, stored in Bereishit Rabba, that the prophetic insight granted to Jacob momentarily, near the end of his life, seemed to evaporate before he was able to put it into words.
The first two verses of the deathbed scene seem repetitive: “And Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father (49:1-2).’”Our rabbis wonder why he sounds like he is repeating himself, when, with time pressing and the end nearing, he should be trying to make the most out of every word and every moment. Instead, Jacob sounds tentative, almost stalling for time. Of course it is normal to be scared of endings, and to try to hold on. But, we can learn from this that when we stall for time, instead of living in the moment, sometimes we lose out too.
Our rabbis note that, as Jacob stalls, the illumination begins to darken and the vision begins to fade. Jacob ends up talking about past hurts instead of future blessings: “Reuben, you are my first born … unstable as water … What you have done to me in the past has brought me disgrace.” What we can learn from this is that when we let fear keep us from ceasing the moment and making holy choices, then that fear will lead us away from light and into a dark bitterness. It is all too easy to hold on to anger and hurt. How often do we, no less than Jacob, become scared that past disappointments will repeat themselves?
We, no less than Jacob, and his sons who sat eagerly by his bedside, awaiting his benediction, we yearn for moments of light to illumine our own darkness, our own fears for the future. At times of transition and change, in the midst of the loss that must inevitably accompany any change, we may also try to peer ahead into a dimly lit future. Uncertain, we too may be tempted to shift from hope to fear, from trust to resentment. But Jacob’s hesitation reminds us that, while it is normal to hesitate, time is short and fleeting, and we should do what we can to make the most of the present.
Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezerich, taught that, rather than be afraid of endings and transitions, we should try to embrace the process, and trust that, ultimately, it will lead us toward life and blessing. He said: Nothing can be transformed from one thing to another unless it first loses its original identity. Thus for example, before an egg can become a chicken, it must cease completely to be an egg. Each thing must be nullified before it can become something else. Only then can it become something else.”
As scary as endings can feel, new beginning are only possible when we release our hold on what was. Our Torah portion for this week represents not only the end of Jacob’s life, but also the end of the book of Genesis, a book that was turbulent and filled with sibling rivalry, fratricide, family members competing over G!d’s favor and being willing to destroy each other in the process. Abel, Ham, Lot , Ishmael, Esau… each generation has repeated the mistakes of the previous one… cutting off one another in an attempt to hold onto the elusive family blessing. Perhaps each were replaying that initial trauma of having been expelled from Eden? And then the story of Joseph, whose brothers want to kill him and ultimately sell him into slavery, once again seems to take on the familiar echo of generations past.
Yet it ends on a redemptive note of family reconciliation and blessing. It also marks the beginning of the story of the Jewish people that ultimately led us to Torah and the promised land. Ultimately our Torah portion reminds us that healing and forgiveness, blessing and reunion are possible. As Jacob ends his life, surrounded by his family, even as he hesitates at first, and holds on to resentment, ultimately, he realizes that, even if he may not be able to predict the future for his children, but he still is able to give them his final blessing, and trust them to figure out how to actualize it for themselves. In so doing, he recommits himself to life, blessing, healing and legacy.
I can not read this death scene of Jacob, and not think of the great Nelson Mandela’s whose death we marked this year, by pausing to celebrate his life and his enduring legacy, his courage and his determination, his vision for a world redeemed. He did not look to his time in jail as an end- as defeat. He used it as a time to grow and learn, to refine his tools so that he emerged even stronger and wiser than before. He too, can teach us so much about how to face loss, and moments of transition, and look forward with trust and faith. Had he looked only to the past, he would not have found the strength to fight for a vision of equality that South Africa did not yet know. He took every ending and obstacle, and harnessed the wisdom he learned from it, in order to actualize his quest for justice, creating a world where all people, created in God’s image, would be able to be treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve.
May our Sabbath bring us opportunity for reflection and reconnection with those in our lives, that we may transcend the weight of the past and be granted Light, blessing, healing and wholeness. Let us not be afraid of endings, but find the strength and faith to embrace them, and the courage to use them to work for a redemption that we pray will be our legacy.