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Vayechi - Looking Back and Forward

01/29/2024 04:41:40 PM


Rabbi Nat Ezray


Vayechi - Looking Back and Forward

As we wish one another Happy New Year, we reflect on how different the secular New Year is from the Jewish New Year.  Think about the greetings – there is a big difference between “Happy New Year” – which is about an emotion, and “Shana Tovah” which means a Good New Year and is about behavior.  For the Jewish New Year, we say prayers and spend time before the holiday to ensure goodness and renewal.  Yet for all the differences, both the secular New Year and the Jewish New Year provide the opportunity to look back and reflect as well as to look forward and imagine.  As we stand on the cusp of 2024, what are your reflections about this past year? (give thumbs up/down/in the middle)

I know that for me this past year has been upsetting, concerning, unsettling. I feel a sense of unease that I can’t recall ever feeling before.  A congregant recently said: “Rabbi you have a tough job.  With everything going on in the world, how do you hold on to and help other hold on to hope?”  It is a question I struggle with.  Acknowledging that struggle might be the beginning of a response.  

          And then I try, together with you, to dig a little deeper – exploring some of the wisdom of our tradition and seeing how it might instruct. Let’s study.

          One lesson that emerges from this week’s portion is the long arch of history.  In the midst of a dark moment, which seems intractable, we remind ourselves that things do change slowly and over time – often in unimaginable and unexpected ways.  If you read the 12 portions in the book of Genesis leading up to this concluding parsha, you might think that sibling rivalry playing out with deadly and dire consequences is a reality that will never change.  Younger sibling supplants older sibling and family estrangement, violence and disconnect seems to define Genesis. And then we come to this week’s portion Vayechi.  In this week’s portion, the younger brother, Ephraim supplants his older brother Menashe to receive the blessing of the first-born.  And what does Menashe do?  Nothing!  He breaks the cycle of toxic sibling rivalry that for 5 generations defined family interactions.  Interpreting the silence of the text, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov teaches that Menashe felt no jealousy toward Ephraim and Ephraim did not lord it over Menashe.  They just loved each other as siblings should.  Things can change over time.  Peace and love can supplant enmity and violence.  Cycles that defined the past do not need to persist into the future.  We access hope at this moment by remembering that things can change – slowly; perhaps too slowly to bring comfort living in a moment when things seem dark.  Genesis teaches things do change. And we hold onto it!

          There is another way to help ourselves hold onto hope – and that is remembering that the negative, painful truths of this moment are not the totality of the moment. We often gravitate toward the negative and make that our totality.  But is it?  Are there not moments of joy, meaning and purpose that we can to hold onto along with the pain and sadness? As 2023 ends, take a step back and think about the joys that were present, yet maybe overlooked.  This was vivid for me in making space in my soul to celebrate Emily and Mike’s wedding on October 14. Mike breaking the glass reminded us that joy and sorrow mingle together.  We acknowledge the sadness, while making room for the joy.  Each Bar and Bat Mitzvah, anniversary, naming, conversion, Shabbat celebration, insights emerging from study, kindness experienced and given creates space for joy. 

There is more wisdom in holding onto hope in this week’s portion. Jacob gathers his family and shares a blessing with each child.  While some of those blessings may have been words of brutal honesty that left hurt, the legacy of this portion is to take Jacob’s lessons of bestowing blessings and refine it by using our words to see and give voice to the good that is and might be.  When we feel blessed and seen; when we give blessings the world feels like a different place – hope becomes possible.   This year as the world seems to be crumbling – I need to be blessed.  I need to bless my family and each of you. We need to bless one another.  Let the blessing we say on Friday nights to our sons from this portion: “May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe” ring in our hearts.  May slight not lead to discord. May we see the strengths in one another.  May we break cycles that have defined previous generations. May we have peace in our homes. 

Related to feeling blessed and giving blessing is the power of gratitude to shift perspective.  Whenever I find myself unable to access hope, gratitude opens doors.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory writes beautifully about gratitude.  Listen to his words: “I thank God for the love that has filled our home. Life is never easy and we’ve had our share of pain. But through it all we discovered the love that brings life into the world…. I thank God for friends who stood by us in tough times, for the mentors who believed in me more than I believed in myself, and for the teachers who encouraged me to think and question – teaching me the difference between truth and mere intellectual fashion. I thank God for those rare souls who lift us and the people I meet daily who light up the world with simple gestures of humanity and decency. I thank God for the fragments of light scattered in so many places….I thank God for helping me understand that faith is not certainty but the courage to live with uncertainty.”  His words of gratitude invite us to enter 2024 trying to holding on to our blessings – knowing blessing exist all around us.  

          Yet the present moment and all of its truths can overwhelm.  One of the saddest moments in this week’s portion is that when Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers worry that now he will take vengeance for what they did to him.  Consumed by their own guilt, they send a message to Joseph that Jacob left instructions to forgive them before he died.  This is the first we learn of this.  Most likely they concocted a story imagining Joseph would seek vengeance.  There is lots in this story – one lesson is that we are so defined by pain, the past, or a narrow version of what reality is - that we cannot envision what else might be.  We lose every possibility for hope. Jacob’s brothers could only see the world through lens of guilt, vengeance and grudge.  They could not see true forgiveness, the blessings in the pain.  

Jodi Roderen, the editor of the Forward recently spent ten days in Israel.  She writes that the most telling moment came as I was walking with good friend Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman (who also is a teacher of mine), who told her, “I’m ashamed at how my heart has shrunk” in the aftermath of October 7. Rabbi Weiman-Kelman is widely known for his passion about pursuing peace and human rights, where the raw pain and anguish of October 7 impacts in visceral ways.

For Jodi, this line reflects how man Israelis are feeling.  Rabbi Kelman explained: “I think on October 7 all of our hearts were broken and since then everyone is just trying to cope with so much and we’re limited human beings….Bottom of FormThe suffering in Gaza is real. I definitely don’t wish anyone in Gaza harm, but I just don’t feel I have the emotional capacity to contain all this.” He continued. “This is the ultimate Hamas victory. They made me a worse person, they made me a less compassionate person. I’m just so angry about that.”

Rabbi Kelman is able to see how his world has become narrow.  As opposed to Joseph’s brothers, who did not realize why they world had become so narrow, he has deep awareness- which will allow him at some point to readjust his heart and reclaim small pieces of hope.

Can we see where our hearts or minds have become so narrow that we only see a limited view of what is and what might be?  To hold onto hope, we have to understand where our vision has become narrow, imagine what might be and then work – small step by small step to bring it about.

We can learn from Joseph.  Look at his response to his brothers. (p. 309, vs. 17) Joseph’s response is to cry. The text doesn’t tell us why - maybe at their inability to embrace his forgiveness.  He gives perspective, reassures them and speaks kindly to them.

This is how we hold onto hope - with honesty and open hearts – seeing what might be.  20th Century Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim wrote extensively about being Jewish after the Holocaust.  As he reviews the tragedies sadly so prevalent in the history of our people, he teaches that renewal and new vision emerge from pain. It takes time and perseverance – but we hold onto hope based on our experience of history. What might emerge from this moment?  Let’s ask that question and imagine what might be.

As we welcome 2024, let’s learn from Joseph: his tears, his ability to see blessing and live with gratitude, his ability to see what might be.  Joseph’s final words to bring his children were to bring his bones from Egypt to Israel. As our ancestors did, let’s carry his legacy with us as we move forward into the future.  May 2024 be a year of blessing, peace and hope.  Happy New Year.Bottom of Form


Sat, July 13 2024 7 Tammuz 5784