The End of the Beginning
Rabbi William Cutter Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
Two torah portions in Bereishit (Genesis) contain within their titles reference to the lives of our ancestors: Hayei-Sarah, and VaYehi, even though they actually deal more prominently with their deaths. In the case of Sarah, an entirely new era is ushered in immediately after mentioning her death. In the instance of this week's portion, there is yet a bit remaining in Jacob's life, a kind of coda within the brief narrative about his goodbye to Joseph, his final blessing of grandchildren long lost, and then, in that coda of codas, the strange (maybe borrowed) recitation of the blessing to his many sons. This passage alone occupied my late colleague Stanley Gevirtz for many years of his life. They were blessings that had an element of blessing's antagonist poison in it: reminders of the mischief as well as midot (qualities) of these children, the recall of a mythic history which has been bequeathed to the Jewish people.
So the life of Sarah portion and the life of Jacob portion is topsy turvy; Jacob's blessings are topsy turvy even his hands become crossed; his expectations are entirely turned around as he ends his life with the very son whom he was sure he had lost-and, then, there is that angel who redeemed him from all evil who remains with traditional Jews (usually children, I suspect) when they recite the Shema privately.
The twists and turns of these lives bring me to a couple of modern poems that read the biblical text differently. I sometimes use the word "subversively", in the sense of a verse underneath the verse, and often reading in the opposite direction.
The poet Binyamin Gilai, (d. 1995) offers one such "subversion":
And the life of Sara
Was a hundred years, and twenty and seven.
Those were the years of Sara's life.
And she died. But the truth is that her candle was snuffed out many years
before the earth became her lodging.
And the casket into which she would be placed, was created long before
A sign of the wood cleaved on another mountain
On another mountain in the land of Moriah.
And Jacob's final Torah portion offered up to Yehuda Amichai, two profound subversions: In his final blessing "The angel who redeemed me from all evil..."
is re-encountered, Amichai notes, at death:
When I was a lad, I prayed the Shema on my bed.
I remember the first verse:
"The angel who keeps me from all evil"
Later I didn't pray, either on my bed
Or on the hills, not in war and not by day or night
But the angel who redeems me remains with me and has become
The angel who loves, and this angel who loves will one day
be the angel of death
when the time comes, but always the same angel
Who keeps me from all evil.
And, finally, Amichai comes back to "Va-yehi" and asks
Why we say a person "is gathered to his ancestors" when
Our real belief is that our ancestors are gathered into us?
Our ancestors are gathered into us, indeed, with all of their complexity, their anxieties and their jealousies; their combativeness and their wisdom, crossed hands and motives and all-and-we hope-with all of their zechuyot (merits).
This year, and in this community-and most recently-gathered to his ancestors, is a man whom we ought to hope can be gathered into us: (Rabbi) David Lieber, who had so much to do with creating our community, and whose glory in the daily sense has passed on, but his kavod (honor)-in the other sense of glory-remains here on earth and in our city for those who will know how to appropriate it. On a national scale, Dave Lieber exemplified what one can do with a coda in one's life. A colleague of his, a close friend and relative of the great Conservative leader (Rabbi) Wolfe Kelman, (Rabbi) Arnold Wolf was also gathered. His was a subversive life of profound religious thinking, of taking with utmost seriousness the need to speak out what he felt was the truth, of loving the two languages of his rabbinate. Both of these men understood life as obligation-obligations that we ought to gather to ourselves.
Our times most recently have been painful and complex. Too many things have gone wrong recently, and some of our values have been turned upside down. We may need subversion in order to set things right. We have sometimes blessed the wrong people, we have sometimes criss-crossed our hands in ways too complex to trust, and we have even blessed the wrong causes. Now we must rebuild. But we can only do so if we honestly claim the truth about ourselves, and if we sensibly and graciously, see that Zechut means obligation as much as it means merit.
The Exodus will add names to our register of great deeds to follow. There is no end to the opportunities.
But be of good courage. And be strong.