“One should always be as soft as a reed, and not as hard as a cedar.” Ta’anit 20a-b
Parashat VaYekhi is the final parashah of the first book of our Torah, the book of beginnings called in Hebrew Bereshit, “with beginning”(in English, “Genesis”). It’s appropriate that it falls on this Shabbat as we end the darkest days and begin our Northern Hemisphere’s turn back toward the light of the sun. We are beginning to find our way back to warmth, light and, dare I say, hope.
In this parashah, the last patriarch of the Torah, Jacob, dies. His death is accompanied by one of the more ancient texts in Genesis, the deathbed song of the patriarch. It doesn’t seem to be much of a blessing, although it is called one, for much of what Jacob has to say to his children, as he reflects back over his life and learning, bears the harshness of long-avoided truth.
Truth is not necessarily harsh. Long-avoided truth, however, will always be more painful than necessary, if only because of lack of practice in learning and growing. If only because of the shock of finally hearing something never spoken, but always known.
It is said that a good death is when HaShem takes one’s soul away with a kiss. The image of a kiss, neshek, is of love, gentleness, openness; such a death seems easily to be what we would all prefer. But to get to such a lovely moment of openness we have to be able to open ourselves past the armor of a lifetime, and past the armor of the fear of a moment.
Such a deathbed moment may occur long before the moment of death. It is a moment of recognizing, or avoiding, the relationships that matter. Each one of us chooses every day whether each moment of connecting to another person, and the G*d within them, is a moment that we will meet by donning our emotional armor, or opening up to the possibility of gentleness symbolized by a kiss.
This is what our tradition is trying to tell us in the ancient teaching repent one day before your death (Pirke Avot 2.15). How can we know which day is our last? Better to live each day as if it is our last, and become the person we have been putting off becoming.
Such a becoming requires us, finally, to grow up: to grow past the child’s response of the experience of fear, to the adult’s ability to be thoughtful about other people’s fear. Fear – yir’ah, according to Jewish tradition, is a necessary first posture we all adopt vis a vis the world. It is, after all, a vast and terrifying place. Yet there is a higher stance to which we are urged to strive: love – ahavah. It is a place not devoid of fear, yet not ruled by it.
How do we learn to grow past the need for the armor we all have developed, into the gentleness our souls require to thrive in connection with each other?
The uncertainty of life will not change. All we can do, in the words of statisticians, is to “update our priors”:
“priors” are your prior knowledge and beliefs, inevitably fuzzy and uncertain, before seeing evidence. Evidence prompts an updating; and then more evidence prompts further updating, so forth and so on. This iterative process hones greater certainty and generates a coherent accumulation of knowledge. (an explanation of Bayesian analysis from How To Think Like An Epidemiologist, NYTimes 4 August 2020)
We all carry our “priors,” our beliefs and certainties, with us every day. Without prior beliefs in the nature of our existence and context we would not be able to function. Yet 2020 has been a year like no other in the exercise of learning which of our prior beliefs and certainties we held have been proved wrong!
This past year has only been a more extreme version of the challenge life constantly offers us: to learn, from teachers and from experience, and to grow from that learning. For Jews this is the heart of Jewish wisdom: “teach your mouth to say I do not know and you will learn” (attributed to Maimonides). This year has surely shown us the damage that comes from holding on to beliefs that are proved wrong, misplaced certainty, and trust betrayed by elected leaders.
Barukh HaShem, Thank G*d, we are not our certainties; when we learn and grow and our certainties become uncertain on the way to new certainty, we do not lose who we are. We become more of who we are meant to be.
When we are as stressed out as we have been in 2020, it’s hard to stay open to learning and to love. We might find that we tense up in fear, our armor strengthens, and we close off from gentleness. Yet religious teachings all encourage us to be gentle with each other and ourselves, that anger destroys and compassion builds.
It’s inevitable that life hurts, things change, and we are misunderstood. What’s not at all certain is how we will choose to respond. After a year of so much irrational suffering, may we all learn to be a bit more open to the rationality of learning, and growing. Any prior belief or certainty may change at any time; let us hope to be in all circumstances not like a stiff cedar, but like a reed, capable of bending gracefully with the pressure that will come to bear upon us from storms without and within.
Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek – let us be strong and strengthen each other.