December 21st: Vayechi
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
A sense of dread hovers over the Torah portions as we conclude Genesis. The refuge of Egypt is wonderful—with Joseph in charge and Jacob and the Children of Israel all welcomed, but we know that the Book of Exodus will soon begin with the new Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph.” As wonderful as it was when, last week, Pharaoh says, “Take your father and your households and come to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land…never mind your belongings, for the best of all the land of Egypt shall be yours” (Genesis 45.18-20), a little voice in my head is crying out, “No, don’t go. You’ll end up being slaves there for 400 years!”
This is not a surprise for God, nor is it for Jacob. Before Jacob/Israel leaves for Egypt, God appears to him in a vision by night: “I am God, the God of your father. Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will also bring you back…” (Genesis 46.3-4) In other words, going to Egypt is a good idea—for now. Later, leaving Egypt will be a good idea, but the fact that things will be bad at a distant time in the future does not diminish the good sense of going down there now.
We who like to think in terms of permanence are troubled by the temporary. We want to solve problems, resolve situations, and remove any and all anxiety. Given our incredible technological abilities—and given the many privileges which characterize our lives, we feel that complete fixes are within reach and that not achieving total security is a personal failing.
The problem is that the world itself is impermanent, and the only permanent feature of life is change. Nonetheless, we yearn for “things to be settled,” to be fixed, to be permanently good. We even learn and teach about the wisdom of permanent security in our common wisdom. We read, in The Three Little Pigs, how we should build strong houses that won’t fall down. There is a parable in the New Testament (in both Matthew and Luke) about the wisdom of building a house on rock and not on sand. We even have Abraham Lincoln cautioning us that “a house divided cannot stand.” However, the permanence of any human construction is only temporary, and this persistent, inevitable impermanence has plagued the human psyche since time began.
I am reminded of the very anxious Mrs. Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and how she looks at the marriages of her daughters—when they are “all settled”—as the completion of her parental responsibilities. Little does she realize that parents are concerned for children forever—and that this concern is part of the blessing of a loving relationship.
This notion of the permanence of love leads us to the religious response to impermanence—the search beyond the worldly to the spiritual. When the usual candidates for certainty—money, power, strength, status—fall by the wayside, the Psalmist tells us to look to God because God is permanent—eternal, everlasting, infinite. When we attach ourselves to God, we can attach ourselves to infinity.
Thus does Psalm 15 list the traits of honesty and truthfulness and conclude, “One who lives in this way shall never be shaken.”
Psalm 90 (verses 10-12) speaks of our limited lifespan—“three-score years and ten, or, even by reason of strength, four-score years”—and the travail and vanity that are inevitable, and then holds up the ideal. “Teach us to number our days that we may get us a heart of wisdom.”
We cannot be victorious forever, but God can.
“How great are Your works, O Lord, how very subtle Your designs!
A brutish person cannot know, nor can a fool understand:
Though the wicked may sprout like grass, and evil doers may blossom,
They are only temporarily: they shall be destroyed forever.
But, You, O Lord, You are exalted for all time!” (Psalm 92.6-9)
We even read this in our High Holy Day prayer books:
“Many of our actions are vain, and our days pass away like shadows. Our lives would be altogether vanity were it not for the soul which, fashioned in Thine own image, gives us assurance of our higher destiny and imparts to our fleeting days an abiding value.” (Union Prayer Book for Jewish Worship, Part II, 1894)
We could muse with Kohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity, vanity. All is vanity,” but even this tired and frustrated philosopher realizes that the problem lies in our expectations. “Put not your trust in princes, nor in a human being, in whom there is no help” (Psalm 146), nor even in things that seem immovable—mountains, oceans, rivers, continents. Try instead to develop a relationship with the one thing that is immovable—God—and that wants to have a relationship with us. Over and over, our Tradition teaches us that God wants us to participate in the Divine Process—to do the work of godliness in the world. This is our ultimate hope, our chance to be a part of God. Thus does Kohelet ultimately reset his frame of reference and conclude, “The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Revere God and observe God’s commandments! This applies to all humankind.”
Yes, we are mortal, but we have a chance to touch eternity. As Rabbi Jacob explained, “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world that all the life of the world to come.” (Avot 4.16)