Vayechi וַיְחִי Sermon 5781 Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
Shabbat Shalom, and an early “L’Shana Tova lachilonim!, a happy secular new year,” or as Israelis say, “Happy Sylvester!” So why, you may ask, do Israelis call the secular New Year’s “Sylvester”? It’s a little complicated but, essentially, they name the holiday after the Roman winter pagan festival that was ironically renamed by Christians in the 4th century in honor of the anti-Semitic pope who was in place at the time of the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. In other words, they, and we, are celebrating a festival that honors both a pagan holiday and an Anti-Semitic pope; not to mention that if Christmas actually commemorated Jesus’ birth New Year’s, the eighth day after that, would celebrate his bris. An odd occasion for festivities, truly, even the restrained ones this COVID-19 world observed last night and today.
Even in an ordinary year they don't care much about this holiday in Israel, and perhaps neither should we, since we already had our own New Year back in September at Rosh HaShanah. Still, the opportunity to gain some perspective, to look around and see where we are, is never a wasted chance.
This week’s Torah portion of Vayechi concludes the great book of Genesis, Breisheet. And while Vayechi is interesting in itself, the fact that we are concluding the first book of the Torah right after completing a calendar year is just too tempting a coincidence to miss. So at this new-secular-year time, when we try to figure out just what happened over the past 12 months and what it all means going forward, we have the opportunity to do the same thing for the first of the five books of the Torah.
As hard as it is to comprehend just what this shocking year, 2020, taught us, concisely summarizing the formative book of all western civilization, Breisheet, seems perhaps harder. Genesis ranges in its scope from the creation of the world to the development of human beings, from the first natural disaster to the first murder, from the first city to the first war, from God’s initial covenant with Abraham to the tumultuous events that led to the creation of the children of Israel, from wandering nomadism to the entry into settled civilization, from Babylon to Canaan to Egypt. Its stories and themes of faith and family, conflict and resolution, love and hatred, universal truth and simple beauty resonate today. The triumphs and failures of the individual human lives portrayed in Genesis remain fresh and fascinating. You can spend your life reading and exploring these tales and learn new lessons each and every time.
First, there are the great theological messages of Genesis: there is only one God; we are engaged in a covenantal relationship with that God; each of us has the ability, and sometimes the obligation, to argue and wrestle with God over the right course in life; there is a greater plan than we can fathom at work, yet we have the free will to choose a good and moral course in life. All of this is central to everything that Judaism ultimately becomes.
But even beyond the great religious mission of Breisheet, there is the wonderfully human dimension of this book. The characters we meet, from fallible Adam and Eve to stolid Noah to the complex and exceedingly human patriarchs and matriarchs all the way to the remarkable figure of Joseph, remind us that the greatest of our ancestors, so many generations ago, were essentially just like us. They show courage and cowardice, are honest and manipulative, fail and succeed. After all that happens in this rich narrative we find that in so many ways we are just like them, and can learn from their accomplishments, and learn more from their many mistakes.
Each year teaches us lessons, both positive and negative. The Torah, and its Book of Genesis, is unique in the way this single text teaches us new lessons continually.
This week’s portion of Vayechi is somewhat anticlimactic. The 12 Israelite brothers, the true B’nai Yisrael, have all been reunited, our great ancestor Jacob finally passes from the scene, as Niles has told us, and the whole family journeys to Canaan to bury Jacob with his ancestors in the cave of Machpeilah. It is at this time that we are given the opportunity to try to glimpse the future. And a wonderful Midrash gives us insight into the best way to do just that.
Rabbi Ron Shulman comments on this moment, and ponders the different perspectives with which we see our lives. He says, “Some people look at life and see only the facts. Others are able to look at life and see the meaning…” He compares the differing perspective of Joseph and of his brothers.
He cites this Midrash in Tanchuma which recounts that when Joseph is returning from his father’s burial in the Cave of Machpelah, he passes the very pit into which his brothers had cast him, and he looks into it. Based on this Midrash, Rabbi Shulman speculates what Joseph might have been thinking as he peered into the crater. He wonders, “How did he remember that moment in his life? What future could he imagine with his brothers, those who had threatened to kill him?”
The Midrash answers, “Joseph stood up and prayed, “Blessed is God Who performed a miracle for me in this place!” There, gazing into a barren pit, the place of his greatest danger and fear, Joseph looks back and sees the wonder, mystery, and graciousness present in his life. In personal terms, such belief and understanding are what we might describe as a consciousness of God.
The brothers assume and fear that as he stands there staring into the very place of his original captivity, he is dwelling on the evil that they perpetrated against him, and now that Jacob is dead, Joseph will finally take revenge. So they send him a message—which they fabricate—with the Jacob’s concubine Bilhah, saying that Jacob had urged Joseph not to take revenge. Joseph weeps, says the Midrash, because his brothers have so little trust in his affection. When they appear, bowing abjectly, he speaks to them gently and puts their fears at rest. “Ten stars,” he tells them, “could do nothing against one star, how much less could one star do against ten? How could I lay a hand on those whom both God and my father have blessed?”
Joseph sees so much farther than his brothers, here. He sees that internal hostility, divisiveness, negativity and fraternal rivalry are not the way to act. His brothers see only danger and potential revenge, and are willing to lie and mislead in order to save their own skins from imagined evil.
Joseph, in these final chapters of Genesis, uses this moment of perspective, this opportunity to assess and understand the past and look to the future, to bring healing and reassurance.
It is a great lesson for us. May we, too, learn to capitalize on this secular new year’s gift of perspective, conveyed artificially or otherwise, to see how to heal the wounds in our own society, and to move from division to unity.
May you all be blessed with a happy secular New Year. But more importantly, may we all be blessed with the ability to continually turn to this great text of Torah, and find inspiration in its depth, beauty, and brilliance, and to use this unique gift of sight and insight to bring healing, hope and health to our troubled world.