Vayechi – The Work of Art Called Our Own Existence

My sermon from the LJS this Shabbat:

Our parasha is called ‘And he lived’ – that is Jacob. However, it is not, on the surface, a parasha about life. We read the death of Jacob and of Joseph. And the intertwined connections between these lives is apparent in the poetry of the section we read this morning:

Listen to the words – they have different meaning, but homophones in Hebrew are used brilliantly by the writers of the Bible to elicit meaning (from Genesis 49:28 etc):

Ani ne’esaf el ami – I will be gathered to my people

Vaye’esaf raglav – He drew up his legs

Vayipol yosef – Joseph fell on his face

Vay’tzav yosef – Joseph commanded

Seamlessly, we are drawn from the figure of a contracting Jacob, who is to be gathered unto his people, drawing his last breath, to the figure of Joseph. The patriarch is dead and the next generation is left with the gap of life, waiting to be filled.

On matters of death, I am sure many of you have sat by the bedside of someone breathing their last breath. Attending to them in those final moments. In my encounter with families and the dying we are faced with both the futility of life – an existential angst that really it has been for nothing. We build up relationships only to see them disintegrate and collapse as our beloved slips into life everlasting. We are left with the hole and, though we pray not on the scale of Job, we feel the *scandal of death as we concede that we do not know the reason ‘why’. The unfathomable remains just that and death itself seems to shout at us – don’t bother, why build up when all that comes of it is pain.

Yet, at the same time as we sit beside our loved ones and even when we mourn for them, we are also confronted by the majesty of life. The world beyond may be a mystery, but the ineffable surrounds us in the relationships we formed, in the way we gave of ourselves to life, in the fragility of existence how we stood firm and affirmed a meaning more powerful than the grave.

I think that perhaps that is the meaning of our Torah portion, entitled ‘and he lived’ that is so full of death and mourning. It is a portion that is full of the potential for life, for the future and also its frailty. Jacob intends to reveal to his sons “what is to befall you in days to come” (Genesis 49: 1) and yet he doesn’t really.

The Babylonian Talmud, Pesach 56a, reflects on this:

For R. Simeon b. Lakish said: And Jacob called unto his sons, and said: Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you [that which shall befall you in the end of days]. Jacob wished to reveal to his sons the ‘end of the days’, whereupon the Shekhinah departed from him. Said he, ‘Perhaps, Heaven forfend! there is one unfit among my children, …)’ [But] his sons answered him, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One: just as there is only One in thy heart, so is there in our heart only One.’ In that moment our father Jacob opened [his mouth] and exclaimed, ‘Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.’

What is going on here? The Talmud describes that Jacob was about to reveal the future, against what was permissible. The Shekhina, the immanent presence of God, evaporates from him leaving him without the knowledge of what he was going to say to his sons. At this he suspects that something is up with his sons, who he has gathered round. His sons respond, ‘Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad’. Knowing that they are faithful, he realises that all will be well and responds with the line not found in the Torah version of the Shema, ‘Baruch shem kavod malchuto le’olam va’ed’.

But listen to the drama of this story. It is more than just the recitation of the Shema that puts Jacob’s mind at rest. Jacob’s new name – Israel – though used as a patronymic to describe the ‘twelve tribes of Israel’ – is momentarily forgotten. Here he is, just Jacob again. Fearful of the future, unable to envision what it will look like, scared that all he sees around him, the epic story that brought his family down to Egypt seems like the end of the road for his family – he suspects all is not right. Yet his sons gather round him and say,

“Shema Yisrael” Listen Israel, hear us dad

Adonai Eloheinu  –Adonai, who blessed you and was revealed to you is our God

Adonai Echad – Adonai is one and Pharaoh and all the other pantheon of gods are nothing – there is just one God.

The Talmud presents a moment of genius interpretation of the text of the Shema. It is no longer a revealed text of the Torah, words of prayer. It is now the sole source of comfort for the last of the three patriarchs. It is not addressed to the nation, it is addressed to one ancestor alone. Comforted, he responds, ‘Blessed be God’s glorious kingdom forever’.

But the Talmud in dramatizing the Shema in this way does more. It casts us all into this moment. The very first law of the Oral Torah asks ‘When does one recite the Shema in the evening?’ The Shema becomes the heart of Jewish prayer. The Talmud shifts it from theology to a statement of heritage, ancestry, faith in our forebears and commitment to the future. For when we say the Shema we are standing as if at Jacob’s bedside. We are affirming our heritage, our community and our existence. Listen Israel, wherever you are – we’re still holding firm to the majesty of life.

You see, the theatre of our liturgy works on many levels. I suppose too, this is not a theological statement either – the Shema becomes a way in which we stand (and at the LJS we literally stand) in common with Jewish communities that have gone before and affirm our commitment to their destiny. But we also become Israel, we become the generation that asks the next – well, what of it? What do you make of this thing we are passing on to you? How will you confirm or affirm yourselves in the mythic chain from Jacob to now?

The retelling of the death of Jacob and of Joseph forces the question. Nu? Well, what happens next. I suppose in ways that are not dissimilar, if it is not trite to say, to the deep introspection that now faces South Africa with the passing of Nelson Mandela. Nu? That’s what he accomplished, now what? What next for us? Do we stand by the heritage, inevitably transforming it, but standing by it nonetheless, or does it become the rubbish scattered by the roadside of history in the endless passage of time – as we are plunged into the despair of loss and the sense that Kohelet sums up so poetically, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’.

As I read from ‘Traces of God’ by Rabbi Professor Neil Gillman he quoted from the passage from the interview of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who died on the Shabbat when our portion was read in 1972 – a passage that I have also revisited many times (in a book that inspired me on the journey towards the rabbinate).

Heschel is asked about a message to young people that he can give in just one minute. He replies:

I would say to young people a number of things. And we only have one minute.

I would say, let them remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can, everyone do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and frustrations and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art. You’re not a machine. And you are young. Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.

The death of Jacob and of Joseph reminds us of the majesty of life. The way that we can craft it to be something great, a work of art. A work of art is not mechanical, it is the expression of humanity – it has the imprint of the human on it, with all of the emotions and dramas that accompany it. Jacob cannot really and truly predict the destiny of his family – that is why he needs the reassurance of them standing by his bed reciting the Shema. Equally we cannot know what the future holds for us or our families – but we can and we must keep faith with the past and give faith to the generations of the future that we can bring redemption, it just might not be in our lifetime.

Now is the time to renew ourselves to keep working on this “great work of art called our own existence”. May we find the strength and resourcefulness, the community of friendship and vision of hope that it does not feel like futility but rather majesty. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.

*****

* The scandal is a term I first read about with regards to suffering in the book of Job in Seeskin’s book ‘Jewish Philosophy in a Secular Age’ that refers to Paul Ricouer and the scandal of suffering.

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