Our ancestor Ya’akov, or Jacob as he is called in English, is the most fully developed, most flawed, most human character of all the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of Jewish tradition. Named, basically, for the word “heel” in Hebrew because he was born holding his twin brother Esau’s heel, he acts the part throughout his youth. Just like the serpent in Eden, Jacob goes low, undermining his brother’s connection to the family and undermining his father’s inheritance plans. His deceit causes him in turn to lose his place in the family, and at the start of this week’s parashah he is on the run, far from home and afraid for his life. Paradoxically, although he is clearly not a pious or an ethical person, it is in this moment that a divine vision is given to him: G*d pulls back the veil of normality, and Jacob sees a link between earth and heaven, and messengers (the Hebrew word often translated “angels” actually means messengers, divine or not) of G*d going back and forth.
This year we are reading the third year of the Triennial Cycle, and so we study the end of this parashah. Jacob is returning home. His time with his mother’s family has been, characteristically, ethically fraught: his father in law tricks him and he does the same in return. Still deceiving, complaining himself of being cheated, after twenty years Jacob is running away again. When he left his home, he was alone and lost; now two matriarchal camps, those of Leah and Rachel, travel with him.
Laban chases him, catches up to him, and the two confront each other: “you cheated me!” “You lied to me!” Finally, they agree to stay away from each other, and Laban goes home. Although, we note, there is no discernible improvement in Jacob’s character, he then, once again, meets messengers of G*d.
וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם לָבָ֜ן בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיְנַשֵּׁ֧ק לְבָנָ֛יו וְלִבְנוֹתָ֖יו וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֶתְהֶ֑ם וַיֵּ֛לֶךְ וַיָּ֥שָׁב לָבָ֖ן לִמְקֹמֽוֹ׃
Early in the morning, Laban kissed his sons and daughters and bade them good-by;
then Laban left on his journey homeward.וְיַעֲקֹ֖ב הָלַ֣ךְ לְדַרְכּ֑וֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־ב֖וֹ מַלְאֲכֵ֥י אֱלֹהִֽים׃Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him.(Genesis 32.1-2)
Rabbi Eliezer’s students asked him: But does a person know the day on which he will die? He said to them: All the more so this is a good piece of advice, and one should repent today lest he die tomorrow; and by following this advice one will spend his entire life in a state of repentance. (BT Shabbat 153a)
Our parashat hashavua this week concludes not only the Book Bereshit but also the saga of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, and that entire generation. One of the most fascinating passages in the parashah describes Jacob, on his deathbed, and his last words to his sons. Although we refer to the scene as Jacob’s deathbed blessing, the words he offers are surprisingly prosaic and not so much about blessing as a recognition of the character of each son.
What our commentators find most interesting, though, is the unanswered promise implied by the first verse of the story:
וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-בָּנָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר, הֵאָסְפוּ וְאַגִּידָה לָכֶם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-יִקְרָא אֶתְכֶם, בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים.
Jacob called to his sons, and said: ‘Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the end of days. (Gen.49.1)
After this statement, one might expect Jacob to begin to foretell future events, perhaps to speak with his children of the slavery and eventual redemption of their descendants, or of future glories and struggles even further down the path.
But he doesn’t. A midrash explains that he was about to, and the Shekhinah appeared at the foot of his bed, rendering him speechless – and when he recovered, he had forgotten what he was about to tell. Telling the future, even if you can see it, is, we see, not part of Jewish tradition, but leads to a sort of unfair “gaming of the system.” Life is meant to be lived by devotion to down-to-earth, every day Jewish ethical behavior. One need not worry about tomorrow’s events if one is living a life of thoughtful mitzvot and compassionate acts as much as one can, day by day.
There is another way to understand the story: there need not be a gap between verse one and the continuation of the parashah at all. In a very real way, Jacob was telling his children what would befall them, not by telling them which horse might win at the races next Tuesday, but by describing to each one of them the character s/he had developed. In other words, the future is not something that happens to you while you wait passively for it to occur; the future is that which we experience as a result of our choices, and the impact they exert on the complex web of phenomena happening all around us, at all times.
Reuven broke basic rules of the home early; Simon and Levi were the type who maim animals for fun. The future which each one of them could expect would be indelibly marked by the acts of their past. Judah struggled and grew morally: as he himself awakened to a higher self, even learning to say “I was wrong, she was right” we might hope for leadership from him marked by the ability to respect others equally to the respect he expected for himself.
What will your last words be? It’s not such a strange thing to consider, since we are creating the self who will speak them every day of our lives, with each act and word. Everyone has a last day marked by the choices we’ve made – both as individuals and as communities, even as nations. No one, and nothing, lasts forever, and there is a greater ethical good in focusing on living each day with integrity, rather than letting ourselves sink to venal levels in fear that our days will not be long enough.
Fear is not a guiding light. It summons none of us to our best selves. Fear of the other is not a foreign or a domestic policy; whether the fear-mongering be from the U.S. president-elect or the Israeli prime minister, we as American Jews know this: either Jewish ethics are applicable in all circumstances, or they aren’t really ethics. The things we believe in will either strengthen us through this darkness, or they aren’t really beliefs.
May our last words reflect a life of principle and of integrity. May we live our days, as best we can, as we want to be remembered – each and every one of them. And may we live them in a supportive community that allows us to deepen those beliefs until they will hold us through the worst of times.
hazak, hazak v’nithazek, let us be strong, be strong and strengthen each other
This is as dark as it’s going to get. From here on out, the light of the sun returns to us, slowly, day by day.
Darkness settles on us human beings like an oppressive cloak. Like Jacob and his sons in our parashat hashavua, we might even lose our grip on what’s real, and what’s really important. The darkness of their jealousy causes his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery and allow his father to believe that he is dead. The darkness of his grief turns Jacob away from his remaining sons. Love leads to hurt, becomes betrayal, and mires a family in misery.
The wisdom of our ancient tradition does not tell us to avoid darkness – we’ve been around too long to believe in such a possibility. Rather, we are invited to note that the eye has both a dark part and a white part, and it is out of the dark part that we see. (R. Berekhiah b’Rabi, Midrash Tanhuma to Exodus, commenting on Psalm 18.29) Light blinds the eye; it is only in darkness that we are able to see light.
Joseph, cast into the darkness of an Egyptian dungeon, embodies this insight. It is not by betrayal and hate that he is able to climb up out of that darkness. When he is offered success in Egyptian terms, he consistently applies the ethical terms he learned from his own tradition to those opportunities. His steady honesty leads toward blessings he can see in the greater light that dawns for him and, ultimately, for all Egypt, as he is able to use his position to create public policy to forestall the worst effects of a multi-year famine.
Some of us have been cast down into our own dungeons of darkness, flirting with despair and with helplessness, in these dark days. It has been harder to remember to be gentle with those we love, and kind to those with whom we share our communities. It is not only personal grief that turns one inward and can lead to more hurt than necessary. It’s not easy to find the strength that Joseph had, to banish the darkness through steady connection to one’s ethics and honesty.
How did Joseph manage it? What allowed him to see the light in the midst of the darkness that surrounded him? According to our tradition, it was because he never forgot the place from which he came and the people who came before him. He was able to see much more than light; because he remembered who he was and where he was from, he was able to see light’s Source.
We are taught that each of us is a reflection of G*d. That does not mean that we look, physically, like G*d. What we “see,” in the reflection that is each of us, is not carried on the wavelength of visible light. It is memory that communicates the resemblance between Creator and Creation. Memory is not a personal reverie; it is a collective, pulsing river of light, carrying the story of who we are, back and forth, all life long, creating us and forming G*d. Each individual’s memory illuminates a small part of the darkness that surrounds us.
And so Hanukkah comes to remind us, just exactly at the right time, that darkness is nothing but an invitation to believe in our ability to kindle light, and to see in that light much more than the present reality it illuminates. Our Havdalah candle tomorrow evening leads directly to the kindling of the first light of the Hanukkiyah, as if already to encourage us to see how the spark becomes a bigger flame when we remember all the Hanukkah holidays that have come before, and all those who kindled light before us.
This, we pray, is as dark as it’s going to get. From here on out, may light of our own kindling return to us, slowly, day by day.