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Beginnings and Endings

The new sanctuary for Congregation Beit Simcha

Sermon Shabbat Vayechi 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha Tucson, AZ

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

I’ve been moving offices this last week, which means, for me, moving many, many books. I am incredibly grateful to the many extraordinarily enthusiastic and helpful congregants—friends—who have put time, effort, energy and funds into our new interim home. The one comment that nearly everyone has made at one point or another is, “Rabbi, you sure do have a lot of books.”

I confess that even in this era of instantaneous electronic communication I still possess an almost obsessive love for books printed on paper. And moving my rabbinic and cantorial offices means, essentially, moving a large library of Jewish books of all categories, from novels to art books to history to Torah to Talmud to Jewish theology to poetry to kabbalah and mysticism to liturgy and prayer to Yiddish to Hebrew stories to Hebrew grammar and linguistics to Jewish humor to Israel to Jewish music to Jewish novels to… well, you get the idea.

Although moving all of these books is a huge undertaking, and entails a sore back and some strained muscles, once I began to open those boxes and place the books in thematic order onto shelves something magical took place. It was very much like rediscovering old friends, remembering reading these books and recalling what I experienced the first time—or the most recent time—I read them. There is something magical about seeing a familiar spine of a book emerge from a cardboard tomb and reassume its proper place in a proper bookcase that no e-reader or ipad or laptop will ever capture. It’s true, when I read nowadays I am more likely to simply download a book at the Kindle Store and read it from my very convenient ipad. It’s certainly far preferable when travelling, being very lightweight and instantly available. But somehow the sensation is not at all the same.

What is it Jewish comedian Groucho Marx once said? Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read…

In any case, as I unloaded the many dozens of boxes of books I was reminded once again of that fact that we Jews are not only the people of the Book, but actually the people of the books, many books, very much plural. As Ecclesiastes said in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, “of the making of books there is no end.” And since he said that a mere 2,300 years ago a whole lot more books have been written. Certainly of the making of Jewish books there is clearly no end. May there never be an end to the love and warmth these archaic objects continue to provide for us. If only I can get all of them onto shelves by the end of 2018…

Books serve so many important purposes in our intellectual and cultural lives, inspiring us, comforting us, challenging us, spurring our creativity, motivating us to improve the world, even to change it meaningfully. And as you can see if you peek into our uncompleted rooms here in our wonderful new interim home, they can also fill up a lot of empty walls. If you have unused bookcases you’d like to donate we are still in the market for them.

In my reading, I find myself particularly drawn to their very first lines, the beginnings of books. If a book can grab you in the first couple of sentences, even the first sentence, you know you have a real author on your hands. There are some incredibly famous openings of great books: “Call me Ishmael,” Herman Melville began Moby Dick. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is how Tolstoy started Anna Karenina. Ford Maddox Ford opened The Good Soldier by writing, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” And Jane Austen famously started Pride and Prejudice with, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” You may have your own favorite.

It’s also true that the very last sentences of great books have a way of being, well, great. Dickens finished Tale of Two Cities with Sidney Carton saying, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." He did pretty well at the start, too: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness” and so on. Margaret Mitchell had Scarlett O’Hara say, at the conclusion of Gone with the Wind, “After all, tomorrow is another day,” although everyone remembers, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” even though it’s not the last line. And George Orwell ended Animal Farm by writing, "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

Again, you might have your own preferences. But there is a lesson in this. Truly great books not only begin brilliantly, they also end extraordinarily well. That is, it’s not only important to start well. You must also understand that how you finish is just as important, perhaps even more so.

There is an interesting problem that has developed in most writing these days. Authors just don’t seem to know how to finish their books. You’ll start a book, and really like it, and then you are hundreds of pages into it and you realize that the writer has no idea of how to end it. And usually, they don’t end it very well at all. You see, as difficult as beginnings can be, it’s much harder to complete something great than it is to start it.

I want to go back to the idea that we Jews are the people of the book. Because the book, out of the plethora of Jewish books, to which we are most powerfully connected is, of course, the Torah, which is really five separate, distinct books. And within that book most of us find ourselves drawn to the first of those five books, Genesis, above the others. Don’t get me wrong, each book of the Torah is extraordinary, and well worth the investment in energy and time: Exodus is dramatic, captivating and provocative, and there are great parts of Numbers and Deuteronomy as well. Leviticus, I’m not so sure about… Although even that book has the statement, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” within it.

But it is Genesis that captures most of us, and it is a remarkable book in so many ways. Not only is it the primary text of our Jewish faith, but it is also the seminal one for Christianity and Islam, and its theology and stories are at the heart of the entire development of Western Civilization. It might be—it probably is—the most influential book in the history of literature. And it is also a really great read. Which raises the question: how did Genesis do on its starting and ending sections?

Well, I suspect you just might know the opening words of Genesis. You can say them with me now: “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.” I’d say it's a pretty successful beginning, even better than, "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." That was the first Harry Potter novel, by the way. And the beginning of Breisheet has some other spectacular lines: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’” is not bad. “In the image of God, He created them, male and female God created them.” And so on… And the rest of that first section of Genesis manages to create the entirety of the universe as we know it, from the heavens and the earth to the plants and animals and human beings. And, oh by the way, it also includes the story of the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel and so much more. A great start indeed.

So that raises the question, how does Genesis finish things up? What are the last words of this great first book of the Torah?

This week we read the parsha of Vayechi, final portion of Breisheet, Genesis, the end of this incredible beginning. And its final words are not bad. They are, “And Joseph swore an oath with the people of Israel, saying ‘God will certainly remember you, and you will carry up my bones from here.’ So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.”

Pretty good, even impressive. Perhaps not as magnificent or familiar as the opening of Genesis, but still, a prediction of the future, a promise of return to the land of Canaan, the ultimate Promised Land of Israel extended by the great patriarch. And, in a literary sense, a kind of cliffhanger that leads you right into the book of Exodus—the sort of trick that forces you to buy the next volume, or at least download the next section on your Kindle or Amazon Fire or ipad. Good marketing indeed.

But there is much more here in Vayechi than just these ending sentences, and it is that which I want to explore a bit with you now.

You see, the most important sections of this last sedrah, these last chapters of Breisheet, are composed of the blessings, or at least the final words that Jacob gives to his many sons, and memorably as well to his grandsons. And these blessings, written in the form of complex poems, include some famous lines indeed. First, Jacob blesses his grandsons with words we use every Friday night, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menasseh.” But then he goes into a different kind of speech, a poetic ode that dramatically highlights each of his sons, some for blessing and some for harsh criticism. And the literary work is excellent here, too. Judah “crouches like a lion,” and the scepter will not depart from him “until Shiloh comes.” And Joseph’s blessing is extraordinary.

25 … the God of your father will help you, Shadai will bless you [with] the blessings of the heavens above, the blessings of the deep, lying below, the blessings of father and mother.

26 The blessings of your father surpass the blessings of my parents, to the ends of the everlasting hills [until the end of time]. May they [these many blessings] come upon Joseph's head and the crown (of the head) of the one who was separated from his brothers.

These are beautiful blessings. And they also take on the role of prophecies, accurate prediction of glorious futures for the descendants of Judah and Joseph. That is, their ends will be good indeed.

But that’s not all that Jacob says, of course. He also has things to say about his other children, and those things are not always, even mostly not, complimentary. After all, who knows the character of child better than the parent who raised him or her? Kids may not think that this is true, but those of us who have parented and lived with the idiosyncrasies of our children know them uniquely well, just as kids know a great deal more about their parents than parents think they do.

Here in Vayechi, Jacob is intensely critical of the misdeeds of his children, and these words, too, become a kind of prophecy on what will happen, and eventually does happen, to each of the tribes that these men father. The sins of the parents visited on the children indeed. In the end, the sons of Jacob, the literal children of Israel, come to very different places. And it is how they finish, where they end up, if you will, that matters most.

So how will we, each of us, end up? Will the books of our own lives, no matter how they began, end with accomplishment and great, memorable words? The challenge for us is to figure out how to make the next chapter better than what has preceded it. It is to work to assure that the words at the end are memorable for good reasons.

We are in the home stretch for 2018 now. However it began for you, may this secular year end with goodness and blessing, the good kind of blessings, worth remembering for all the right reasons. And may we each, eventually—many years from now—write final words that rise to the level of holiness.

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