D'VAR TORAH |
Farewell to Jacob, Farewell to Months
As we reach the end of the secular year, our Torah portion too is full of endings. It is the end of the Book of Genesis, the very last portion, and in it we read of the end of Jacob's life, as well as the end of Joseph's life. As Jacob is laying on his deathbed, he turns and sees each of his children and musters up the energy to say a few final words to each of them. With much imagery, he tries to sum up the character of his boys, and the truth is, most of them are not really that great. Reuben had an affair with one of his father's wives. Simeon and Levi killed thousands of men. The brothers threw Joseph into the pit, sold him into slavery, and then told their father he had been torn to shreds by a wild beast.
According to Rabbinic legend (Babylonian Talmud, Pesach 56a), as Jacob was on his deathbed, his twelve sons gathered around him as summoned. Jacob looked at the faces of the sons enwreathing him and realized that this one was violent and this one was self-serving and this one was a sinner and this one was weak and this one was brazen. "How can I leave this world, Jacob thought, "with my sons so misguided and divided! The dying patriarch began to cry, imagining what would happen once he was gone, how faith in the God of Isaac and Abraham would probably die with him. His youngest son, Benjamin, sensing his father's anguish, leaned close and whispered to him, "Sh'ma Yisrael, hear Israel, hear Jacob, listen Father, Adonai Eloheinu. Despite how it seems, be assured, Adonai is our God; we do believe, Adonai Echad, ‘God is One,' and we are one. We are together no matter where our paths lead us, Father; we are a family, and we are one. Jacob's soul was immediately soothed. He turned to Benjamin and whispered gratefully to God about his youngest son, Baruch shem kavod malchuto l'olam va-ed, "Blessed be his kingdom forever and ever.
When we recite Sh'ma, we remember this Torah portion. We close our eyes and, behind our lids, imagine approaching Jacob's bed. He is softly weeping. The color is drained from his face. His hair is a cloud of ice crystals evaporating in cool mist in the sun. His bed is as an altar. Hosts of dust angels sail through the shafts of pink and gold sunlight, somersaulting in his shallow breath. We come near and kneel beside him, hands lightly on the thin sheet over his angular body. We begin our prayer . . . Shhhhh . . . and his weeping subsides. Sh'ma Yisrael . . . listen Israel . . . we remind him that his name is Israel and that we carry on that strong namesake. Yes, there will be obstacles. Yes, there will be opponents. But we are all wrestlers, and we have faith in the same Source.
Parallels have been drawn between Jacob's twelve sons and the twelve months of the year, and out of the imagery of Jacob's words, symbols or flags of each of the tribes, corresponding to zodiac signs for each month, have been developed through literature and art. Like birthstones, each tribe is assigned a precious stone embedded into the breastplate of the High Priest.
In keeping with our patriarch, who looked around him at his end at his twelve boys and said a word of farewell to each of them, we too look around at the twelve months that have passed and give them our final testament and farewell. How were the past months like the tribes of Israel?
Jacob says to Reuben, "Boil up like water no more (Genesis 49:4). How was our past year unstable, like water ready to boil? What are the powers that overtook us, the temptations to which we submitted and that we'd have boil up no more?
To Simeon and Levi: "Cursed is their wrath so fierce (49:7). What were the faces of wrath we encountered this year in our own circles and in the world? Do we recall the flags of Israel and the United States burning in the Middle East? How have we assuaged our own prejudices and wrath? To Judah: "Your brothers shall heap praise on you (49:8). How have we earned the praise and respect of our family this year?
To Zebulun Jacob says, "He will be a harbor for ships (49:13). We pray that our homes and our synagogues become a harbor for ships, that we are drawn safely into port at the close of tiresome days, that we find peace in the twelve moons to come and many, many moons more.
To Issachar: "He bent his shoulder to the burden, to be subjected to forced labor (49:15). How have we handled the burdens in our lives? When have we followed, and when have we led?
To Dan: "Dan will lead his people's cause (49:16). How this year have we led our people's cause? How have we participated to make our own voices heard in the issues that matter most? Have we written letters, attended rallies, generated petitions . . . or have we allowed ourselves to believe we cannot make a difference? How have our houses of worship helped us to organize and advocate for tikkun olam?
To Gad: "Gad shall be raided by raiders (49:19). This year we saw Israel raided. How do we continue to reach out and facilitate the creation of an infrastructure of peace in the land we hold so dear? To Asher: "Asher—his food is fat (49:20). To feed our consumptive American appetites, whom have we raided? Have we paid enough attention to those who work in darkness and dread to provide the luxuries we take for granted?
To Naphtali: "Naphtali, a mountain-ewe born, bears lovely lambs in the folds (49:21). What were the loveliest things in which you participated this past year? To Benjamin: "Benjamin is a wolf that rends (49:27). What have we raided this year? Have we been generous with others this year, and when have we thought only of ourselves?
Finally, to Joseph, Jacob says, "Joseph is a wild she-ass's son (49:22). When during this past year have we behaved as a mensch? And when, quite frankly, have we been, well, um . . . a donkey?
Rabbi Zoë Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah, Los Angeles, California. A book of her poetry, House Plant Meadow , will be published this year by David R. Godine, and she is the author of a chapter in The Women's Haftarah Commentary (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004).
DAVAR ACHER |
Guarding the Legacy
My Uncle George was the family chronicler. He kept track of all the birthdays, anniversaries, and yahrzeits. He knew phone numbers and addresses by heart. He kept track of who was related to whom. At the time of his death he was working on a comprehensive family tree.
Uncle George's genealogy file was given to me, with the hope I would complete his unfinished family history. The large expandable legal-size folder was filled with scribbled notes, photocopied birth and death certificates, microfilm printouts, and governmental information request forms.
There were also dozens of photographs: sepia-toned, crackled, dog-eared photos of stern looking men and women staring unsmilingly at the photographer. There were photos of men with high, starched collars and women adorned with feathered turbans and hats with veils; young boys dressed in sailor suits and girls wearing high-button shoes and lacy dresses.
On the back of the photos were some annotations: "Summer 1917, "First Day of School, "Shabbes at Home. But there were no names—I had hundreds of nameless family members staring at me through the generations.
At the conclusion of this week's Torah portion, Joseph dies, and his final wish is to be buried in the Land of Israel. But unlike his father's body, Joseph's cannot be transported at the time of his death. Instead, the Israelites take his bones with them hundreds of years later at the time of the Exodus from Egypt.
Through his actions during his life and ultimately through his wish to be buried in Israel, Joseph is remembered and his name lives on. The image of the Israelites walking through the desert lovingly cradling the bones of the patriarch Joseph is one of the most enduring scenes in Torah.
With my uncle's death and the passing of the file of pictures and the incomplete family tree to me, I have essentially become the chronicler for a new generation. I attempt to put names to the strict, unblinking faces and try to discover just a few facts about my ancestors.
Like the Israelites before me, I am carrying the bones. Precious, they rest in a tattered, mottled folder on a shelf in a hallway closet.
And like Jacob and Joseph, may their memory be for a blessing.
Cantor Evan Kent is the cantor at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, California. He is currently a member of the URJ Committee for Lifelong Jewish Learning and is on the faculty of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles.