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Parashat Vayechi December 21, 2018

12/19/2018 12:44:39 PM

Dec19

Rabbi Robinson

Parashat Vayechi

12/21/18

My Christian Clergy friends and I have a running joke, that one of these years we’ll switch places. They’ll show up to preach Rosh Hashanah and I’ll offer the homily for Christmas. It’s a fun idea, especially as we each prepare for those more stressful, more intensive services with their larger congregations. Wouldn’t that just be the bee’s knees? You expect your pastor, and some rabbi gets up and starts preaching Torah instead of the Gospel. Ha ha! And then we go back to working on our own stuff and move on.

Obviously, I’m not preaching Christmas day next Tuesday. But I’ve got to admit, as our Christian brothers and sisters are preparing for one of their high holy days, what would I offer to them? Or what would be a meaningful Christmas sermon to those of us for whom the day is the opportunity to catch a movie and go out for Chinese and not much else? What would a rabbi’s Christmas sermon sound like?

This week, as we prepare for Jacob’s passing, and Joseph’s passing, and the transition from Genesis to Exodus, from survival to subjugation, we find Jacob preparing to bless Joseph’s children Ephraim and Menasseh. We’re familiar with the blessing, of course; firstly, because of Jacob’s peculiar gesture, crossing his hands and blessing Ephraim as if he’s the eldest instead of his brother Manasseh, and secondly because we invoke them to bless our own sons even to this day, just as it’s described in Scripture. But before we even get to that we have this poignant moment between Jacob and Joseph on Jacob’s deathbed. The text reads: 

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֔ף רְאֹ֥ה פָנֶ֖יךָ לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי וְהִנֵּ֨ה הֶרְאָ֥ה אֹתִ֛י אֱלֹהִ֖ים גַּ֥ם אֶת־זַרְעֶֽךָ׃

And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.”

Even just on a surface level, it touches the heart. The father who assumed his beloved son, the son of his wife Rachel, had died out in the wilderness, wracked his life with guilt and mourning, has experienced the miracle of seeing his son alive, as well as his son’s children. The commentary says that the word ‘Philalti’ means “I didn’t even dare pray to see you alive again”, as if to say that Jacob never entertained the hope of seeing Joseph alive again. And yet, the impossible happened. Here was his son, here were his grandsons. What Jacob thought he knew, what he was so sure of before, had been turned upside down.

And so we look toward a new secular year, and we march forward with the data before us, and we think we know. We think we know what the future holds. We think we know what lies before us, good and ill, and we don’t dare to hope against hope that things could be different. Instead, we put our heads down and soldier on. But every now and again, there is a moment like Jacob’s, an unexpected event, one we hesitate to speak aloud in case we jinx it somehow, and we are amazed, and we discover that peace can emerge in the war-torn land, dignity can be restored to the impoverished, and justice is restored to the beleaguered. Or, to quote the poet Sheenagh Pugh:

Sometimes things don't go, after all,
from bad to worse…

A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor…
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.

The question, as we sit in the darkest time of the year, as move toward the end of Genesis and the end of the secular year, as we move toward the birth of something new, is whether we will allow ourselves, like Jacob, to open ourselves in wonder to the hope that is beyond hope, to open ourselves to the radical possibility that all might, might, go well after all. Pugh continues: “The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow/that seemed hard frozen. May it happen to you.” May it happen to all of us as it happened to Jacob. Amen.

Wed, August 21 2019 20 Av 5779