Archive for the '1.12 VaYechi' Category

Heavy Stuff : The Weight of Our Current Situation

In the book of Exodus in an effort to free the Israelite slaves Moshe enacts plague after plague. It seems that just when Pharaoh might let them go, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he holds back from letting them go.  Here is VaEra, this week’s torah portion,  we read:

And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not so much as one of the cattle of the Israelites dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was kaved- heavy, and he did not let the people go. (Exodus 9:7)

A couple of week’s ago in Vayechi we read about the end of Israel’s life when he has gathered his children to give them blessings. There we read:

Now the eyes of Israel were kavdo – heavy for age, so that he could not see. And he brought them near unto him; and he kissed them, and embraced them. (Genesis 48:10)

What is the connection between Pharaoh’s heart being kaved- heavy and Israel the kavdo – of Isreal’s eyes?

In the strange days we are living I am acutely aware of the echo chambers we have created for ourselves. We give the voices the conform to our beliefs more weight then those that challenge us.  We rarely come into contact with ideas or people that push back and make us see opinions other then those we already hold sacred. We are blinded and stuck in our ideological silos. Regardless if our intentions are for a blessing like Israel with his children or for a curse like Pharaoh to his Israelite slaves, we are stuck under the weight of our own limited experience of the world.  We will only return to civil discourse when we seek out voices different then our own. Through this discourse we will rebuild trust. It is only through this trust that we can all tell the difference between truth and lies. It is only when we listen with empathy to the other that we will see how we might find our way out of our current situation.

 

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On the End of Genesis

Here we are at parshat VaYechi, this week’s Torah portion, and the end of the book of Genesis. It seems to be the end of all of the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and the tying up of all the loss ends.  Yaakov gives all of decencents their blessings, he will give instructions for his death, he will die and then Yosef will follow his father’s lead.  There seems to be a lot of reconciliation with Yosef. Most obviously is that his children Efraim and Menashe are elevated to the status as two of the original band of brothers.

Reuven as the eldest child of Leah should have received the birthright, but it was permanently taken from him because of his sin. Here the Midrash makes an interesting claim. Yaakov told Reuven: “The birthright, the priesthood, and kingship were yours. Now that you have sinned, the birthright has been given to Yosef, the priesthood to Levi, and kingship to Yehudah” (Gen. Rabbah). Juxtaposed this we see that Yaakov is not to be buried with Yosef’s mother, his true love Rachel, but rather in the cave with Reuven’s mother Leah.

As Genesis comes to a close we are reminded that family is complicated. As Rachel’s son Yaakov treated Yosef differently in his childhood. He cannot undo his missteps, but Yaakov can recognize how he mistreated Leah. Even if it seems to work out for Yosef in the end there seems to be some recognition of the lives lived and mistakes made along the way.

What, Too Soon?

Have you ever seen Aristocrats? It is a movie that is made up of various comedians telling different versions of the same dirty joke. At the core of the movie was a version of the Aristocrats joke  told by Gilbert Gottfried not long after the 9/11 attacks. If there was anything of lasting value form the movie, it was that it asked the question, “Too Soon?”  Without ever talking about it explicitly, we all seem to know that the severity of a situation can be measured against the moratorium on talking about it. This humility and silence gives me hope in our basic humanity. But at the same time there is a reality that not talking about issues makes it hard for us to move forward and deal with the causes. Things can just get too heavy. When is too soon to make light of something?

I was thinking about this in regard Vayechi, this week’s Torah portion. After Yakov’s death, Yosef and his brothers carried out their father’s instructions that he be buried in the Land of Israel. On the return trip to Egypt, the brothers were overcome by the fear that now that their father was out of the picture Yosef would seek revenge for their having conspired against him to throw him into the pit. They implored him in the name of their father to spare them:

Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Yosef, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father. And Yosef was in tears as they spoke to him. (Genesis 50:16-17)

After all of the years and despite all of their recent good fortune, neither the brothers nor Yosef could talk about how they failed Yosef so many years earlier. Their lives are filled with fear and everything is heavy. Even with all of the pain, you have to think that one joke would have broken the tension and lifted the whole family. I am not saying that the joke would have made things right, but it would have reminded them that they are still a family and that they can start talking about the pain they have caused each other.

A couple of years ago Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz shared with me a great midrash that speaks to our portion. There we read:

And Yosef’s brothers saw that their father had died. What was it that they saw which caused them fear? On the way back from their father’s burial they saw that Yosef went to recite the blessing at the very pit into which they had cast him. And he recited the blessing which one is obligated to recite at a place where a miracle happened: ‘Blessed are You who performed a miracle for me at this place’. (Midrash Tanhuma Vayehi 17)

In this account, the brothers seemed justified in their fear. Yosef returned to the scene of their crime. Retribution seemed like it was soon to follow. But instead of a joke, the Rabbis help break the tension with a blessing. Yosef has matured. Looking into the pit Yosef sees how far he has come in his life. He no longer sees himself at the center of the universe. Yosef responds:

Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result–the survival of many people. (50:19-20)

And still I want one of the brothers to break the tension with a joke. “Look who thinks he is not God? Mr. Stripe-y Coat himself”. What, too soon? OK, I will have to be happy with Yosef’s saying a blessing. But still I believe that real humor (not ridicule) has unique ability to accelerate healing.

Blessing the New Year

It seems funny ending Genesis ( as we do this week) so close to a time when so many people on this planet celebrating a New Year. We just got started and we are ending.  Or is it just starting the next chapter? It seems that for many 2011 was less than a stellar year. So I am sure many of us are looking forward to  a brand new start. As we will read next week, that is the subject of the portion of Shmot.

In parshat VaYechi, this week’s Torah portion, we see Yaakov giving blessings to his children. It is hard to see this outside of the context of the other blessings in the Bible. Most notably the blessing Yaakov himself got (stole) from his father Yitzhak. But this is different. In most of the cases it is the charge of parent to a child in their youth as to their destiny and life path. As compared to a blessing to someone in their adolescence who is looking for guidance and direction in this week’s portion we see grown men getting blessings. It seems to be an eternal truth, we all yearn and seek parental affirmation regardless of our age, station, or accomplishment.

Just as Genesis comes to a close and we see the family come together for their blessings, I had the pleasure of spending the New Year together with my family. It is an amazing time to see the cousins play. It seems timeless to share the pleasures of good food and fun activities with family. It is also a time to reflect on how we have progressed as parents, partners, and also children. I have been so concerned with how am becoming a better parent ( as evident by this blog itself) that I am rarely consciously reflecting on how I am as a child. I spend so much energy thinking about the blessings I want to give my children, I do not spend enough time reflecting on the blessings I have already been given by my parents, let alone the ones I still hope to get.

As I am now hyper-conscious of being a parent it has become apparent that the gift of a blessing is not in the receiving, but in the giving.  It is a great gift to see the hidden potential in someone else and label it. That is what it means to bless something. Blessing is a mini- revelation. Giving a blessing in many ways is the prize of ascending to Sinai. We are all Israel in that we are struggling with who we are becoming, what a blessing to have it revealed, let alone to reveal it?

 

Peace Between Father and Son

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, we do not see too much action. To be honest, compared with last week’s portion, this one a seems a bit anticlimactic. The era of the Patriarchs is coming to an end and we are waiting for the narrative to pick up again in Shmot with the story of the Israelites and Moses. But before we roll the credits on the book of Genesis, we deserve a powerful ending to this epic.

This portion starts off, “ Yaakov lived in seventeen years in the land of Egypt…“ (Gen 47:28) The Baal HaTorim quoting the Midrash HaGadol picks up on the number seventeen. This number seventeen clearly sets the time that Yaakov lives in the land of Yosef to the time that the son spent growing up in the house of his father before he was sold. Even before we compare Yaakov and Yosef, it is hard not to relate to the equilibrium in the turning of time. The child who was dependent on the parent physically and emotionally for their first stage of his or her life is often forced to reverse roles with their child for the parents’ final stage of life. There is a certain balance in the living out of the riddle of the sphinx.

But let us move ahead and highlight some of the differences between this father and son. Taking a look at Yaakov’s life we see a person developing in isolation. While, at first we see Yaakov cleaving to the heel of his twin brother, the text quickly shifts and Yaakov is depicted as a contemplative loner sitting in the tent (Gen.25:26-27). He is alone again when he flees home in fear of his brother to live in a foreign land (Gen 28:10-11). Amidst his flight he stops in Luz which later called Bet El (Gen. 28:19) There he has a divine dream of the ladder. Years later we see Yaakov alone again when he is returning home. (Gen. 32:25). Yaakov’s most important moments are when he is by himself. As the Midrash would have us understand his time in the tent was devoted to Torah study. But it is clear in the later two cases that Yaakov’s most powerful educational experiences with God are when he is alone. It is also interesting to note the development in his own education that in Luz the interaction is passive and just a dream where as when he returning home his is physically wrestling with God. This refinement of his character is picked up in the imagery of the movement from the rocks that he gathers to put under his head to the dust in which he and the angels of God roll around in amidst their struggle.

As a student of God Yaakov is truly a lonely man finding company with God. But, how do we see Yaakov as a teacher? Yaakov engineers the same educational environment that he learned about God for his chosen student Yosef. Yaakov sends Yosef to check on the very brothers who scorn him (Gen 37:13). It is no coincidence that they are not there. The classroom is set; the apple is on desk, the board is clean, there is plenty of chalk, there are no distractions in the classroom, and the best teacher in the world is waiting His next student. Yosef comes into his own personal classroom asks where his brothers are and leaves (Gen 37:25) Yosef is gone and so is the educational moment. It will take him his whole life to come to realize God. In contrast, Yosef education happens in the moments of his trying to connect with others. First with his brothers, then in Potifar’s house, then prison, then with Pharoah, and then again with his brothers. It is clear that Yosef derech haLimud , method of learning, is very different then his father’s derech. Yaakov finds God in the extremes moments of radical solitude, while Yosef finds Gcd in social joining.]

Yosef lived his entire adult life away from his father. Not only did he not have the comforts of family, he never had his father validate his method of seeing the world. This all comes to a beautiful conclusion in this week’s parsha when Yaakov says, “ El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and God blessed me. And said to me, ‘I will make you fertile and numerous, making of you a community of peoples…” (Gen 48:3-4). God appeared to Yaakov in the solitude of Luz in the dream and blessed him with the blessing of the entire book of Genesis to be fruitful and multiple, but for the first time the bracha has been expended to “making of you a community of peoples”. If you are open to hear it you hear the reconciliation between the loner and the social learner. Yaakov is not saying that he was wrong, but he is finally able to see that Yosef’s way of seeing the world is also blessed by God and critical to future of the Israelites, and the world. In a book of conflicts between brothers and fathers and sons. We end of the beginning with an expanded blessing. We have a model beyond a nation of individuals, we have a community of those striving to find God.

I hope that our community continues to make room for all types of learning and religious striving. I want to live in a place welcoming and supportive to all.

Now we can roll the critics. Shabbat Shalom.


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