Shabbat VaYehi: Update Your Priors

“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.

Shabbat shalom.

(next week) Shabbat VaYehi: What’s the Last Word?

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