Of Good Endings and Beginnings

Parashat Vayechi 2017, Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

Of Good Endings and Beginnings

There has been no shortage of seasonal idyll this last week with a White Christmas and what looks to be a White New Year’s Eve also.
Every family is bound to have their own seasonal traditions during this time of year and one of ours has been to see Star Wars – and I suspect some of you have done too.

I’m not going to talk about ‘The Last Jedi’ in great detail because I want to make sure I don’t spoil anything for those of you who haven’t seen it, but suffice to say, it is a subversive but classic tale of rebellion, repentance and redemption. Despite the Zen flavors of the Jedi cult, this Star Wars felt very Jewish in some of the themes it explored: the choice between good and evil, the balance between sacred tradition and disruptive innovation and the belief that any human being, even the most morally compromised, can still do t’shuvah and pivot towards the good. Added onto that, it was very much a tale of macro and micro: political processes that steer the entire galaxy spring forth from the small but crucial interactions between individual human beings. Ultimately, it was a tale about humanity and identity, about family and loyalty and finding our own place in our moral universe, including the choice of an important character to choose a ‘good death’ (I will say no more!). In that sense, ‘The Last Jedi’ is in perfect alignment with Parashat Vayechi.

Parashat Vayechi brings these elements together in a moving narrative of Jacob’s and Joseph’s death. The Joseph cycle represents a fulcrum, a transition, from the old into the new, not unlike winter festivals. We leave the stories of an individual family behind as we look forward to the Book of Shemot, Exodus, where we encounter the stories of a nation. Joseph is the agent that binds these different elements together: his actions set the scene that will not only lead to enslavement but also to redemption. It is through Joseph’s descent into Egypt that we actually sow the seeds of Revelation, where Torah is given in the redemptive emptiness of the wilderness.

The inevitable endings of these stories can tell us much about living well and dying well. If there’s an overarching theme in Vayechi, it’s the dignified ability to manage our responses and wrestle sacred moments out of existential encounters.

At the beginning of the parashah, we receive a tally of Jacob’s years: he’s 147 years old of which he spent the last 17 years in Egypt. This mundane factoid is followed by a simple yet profound phrase: ‘Vayik’revu yemei Yisrael lamut vayikra livno l’Yosef…’ ‘And the days of Israel drew near death and he called on his son, to Joseph.’ (Gen. 47:29).

What’s striking about this phrase is that we have a shift in name: Jacob becomes Israel again, as if he reaches into his better self. The nearness of death isn’t easy for him – how could we expect it to be? – but, like any compelling story, it is strangely uplifting in the closure and healing it can offer him. He’s prepared and he knows what he wants to do. He orally composes his will and bequeaths his blessing and wisdom on his adult children. (And ‘blessing’ doesn’t only refer to pleasantries; it can also mean a stark accounting of honest truths we need to hear). The next chapters, Chapter 48 and 49, are filled with the blessings for his progeny as Israel reflects on his life’s achievements, failures, loves and losses. He secures his legacy through Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, giving rise to the custom to bless our sons at the Sabbath table, with the wish to be like the first sibling pair in Torah who weren’t torn apart by conflict. (Daughters are equally blessed with the invocation of the Matriarchs).

Strangely though, the Torah doesn’t tell us Jacob is actually (mortally) ill until verse 48:1: ‘acher hadevarim ha’eleh vayomer l’Yosef, hineh avicha choleh’ – ‘and it was after these things that one said to Joseph, behold your father is ill.’ This suggests that Jacob had the insight to order his affairs before it was too late. He wasn’t blasé in assuming that he’d have ‘time’. Rather, he had the state of mind to heal the relationships with his children at a time he could still enjoy them and bless them. The responses of his sons are equally insightful.
When Joseph hears of his father’s condition, he came – but not just him. He brought his sons. Jacob gives final instructions for his burial and dies. He makes honorable preparations for his father’s remains, as per Egyptian custom, and seeks permission from Pharaoh to take what we would call ‘compassionate leave’.

The chapter ends with healing: old grudges are forgotten and the brothers are reconciled. With the maturity of hindsight, Joseph assuages his brothers not to fear him as he promises to provide for them and their children.

What a powerful way to ‘finish well’, to forge goodness out of the crucible of family dynamics and existential fears. To be able to rise above our own petty grudges and knee-jerk responses to build a legacy of ‘chesed’, loving–kindness that will lead to powerful new beginnings and that can sustain us to face the challenges of times to come.

The power of Torah is not just what we read in synagogue; our Jewish lives and non-Jewish lives need not to be so bifurcated. Just as Joseph discovered that there is ‘Torah’ and kedushah, holiness, in the wider culture of Egypt, we too can see how the stories we tell today are rooted in the stories of our ancestors. If you are so inclined to go watch Star Wars, watch it from a Jewish perspective.

Stories increase our capacity for empathy, allow us to transport ourselves to the dimension of another’s soul, or, to continue the metaphor, hyper-jump at the speed of light into the experience of our fellow.

As the old year dies, may we be blessed to find healing in 2018, and the capacity to respond to the challenges of our lives with generosity and intention, to know, as the family of Joseph did, that we have choices and options for the future and that we can finish these last days of 2017 well.

Wishing you a very happy 2018 and Shabbat shalom.


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