For Congregation Ner Shalom ~ Jan. 2, 2015
(Rembrandt: Jacob Blessing Joseph's Children)
I had a chance to be at the ocean last week on a surprisingly bright and warm Dillon Beach day. I stood on the sand and watched the waves. The ocean extended itself out toward the dunes, and then gathered itself back. I had a moment of wondering which of these was the positive space and which the negative. With each expansion of the sea, the earth would contract. And with each contraction of the sea, the earth would seem to expand. There was no net gain or net loss. Instead, always some element to fill the space.
These thoughts came back to me as I read this week's Torah portion, a very beautiful piece of Torah, the last bit of Genesis, in which Jacob bids farewell to his children with prophecies and character assessments and then expires. His death is described poetically. So poetically, in fact, that, as Rabbi David Kasher reminds us in his Parshanut blog this week, there is some mystical uncertainty whether Jacob ever died at all.
The key phrase that jumps out is this:
ויכל יעקב לצות את–בניו ויאסף רגליו אל–המטה ויגוע ויאסף אל–עמיו
Jacob finished instructing his children. And he gathered his feet into the bed, breathed out his last, and was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:33.)
There is something striking about the repetition of the Hebrew verb asaf, "to gather," within the verse. The first instance of it, Jacob's gathering of his feet into the bed, is a detail that is intimate and physical. Whereas his being gathered to his people is majestic and metaphysical.
But this is Torah, and the repetition of a word means we are supposed to relate the two iterations to each other, equate them in some way. So the two instances rub off on each other. Jacob's intimate drawing of his feet into the bed is lent some extra grandeur and dignity. And the stately moment of his death is imbued with coziness and warmth.
This verb asaf, "to gather" was also used earlier in this same passage of Torah, at the beginning of the scene. It says:
ויקרא יעקב אל–בניו ויאמר האספו
Jacob called out to his children and he said "gather yourselves." (Genesis 49:1) Or slightly more literally, "be gathered."
What light does this instance of the verb shine on Jacob's death? There's something about gathering together. That Jacob's death is not just a parting, but a kind of coming together.
My mother's death last year also had a "gathering" quality to it. From the moment of her stroke, loved ones, including many people here and many people far away, came together for her. To witness, to help, to soothe. They gathered in her hospital room until they overflowed into the hallway. They gathered on Facebook, watching for posts like villagers in the square, awaiting the town crier. And when she died, they showed up in Santa Rosa to chant and in Chicago to mourn.
But it's not the attendee count that is significant in this idea of a death being a kind of gathering. Because whether we are a community of 100 or a family of 50 or a household of a scant handful, death has a way of stripping away our differences. We all look more alike in the presence of death. We see beyond and underneath our squabbling to what we share - our mortality, our physicality, our fear, our love of life, our love - period. When Jacob says, "be gathered" to his children, he doesn't just mean that everyone should show up in the room, but that they should allow themselves the closeness that our day-to-day differences sometimes impede.
If we look beyond the book of Genesis, we find other instances of the verb asaf that could color our understanding of Jacob's death. Sometimes it's used in an agricultural sense - gathering grain, collecting fruit. Now imagine Jacob's death in that context. His life had sprouted, grown, flowered and fruited. And at the age of 147 - the ripe old age of 147 - his soul was at last ripe for the plucking. And he was gathered.
Other times asaf is used in the sense of drawing back, or drawing something back that had already been offered or extended. Sometimes it's physical, like when King Saul says to the High Priest,
Gather your hand, meaning "draw back your hand." (1 Samuel 14:19.) And sometimes it's a more intangible image, for instance in the book of Joel, in a prophecy about the end of days:
לפניו רגזה ארץ רעשו שמים שמש וירכ קדרו וכוכבים אספו נגהם
Before God the earth quakes, the heavens tremble, the sun and moon grow dim and the stars gather - i.e. draw back - their brightness. (Joel 2:10; repeated in 4:15.)
In both these examples, something that was given is being retracted. The priest's hand, the light of stars. Here asaf, to gather, implies a drawing in of something that had already been emanated outward. Jacob's life had been radiated into this world; now it was being pulled back.
The idea of a soul being emanated into this world and drawn back at death is more deeply developed in our Kabbalistic tradition. In that cosmology, the soul is made up of three components (18th Century Rabbi Chayim Luzzato and others say five but we'll keep it simple). The neshamah soul is sourced in God and at the neshamah level, this root level, we are all connected. The ruach soul is the conduit that reaches into this world. And the nefesh soul is the one most identified with our physical being and this physical world. It is our personality; it is what we're referring to when we say, "Oh this Mogen David shpritzer is so good for my soul."
When we die, our mystical story goes, this nefesh soul is cut off from the neshamah and the ruach which are busy retracting into the Oneness of God, like the recoil of a snapped rubber band. The nefesh will follow as well, but it is so identified with the joys and pains of this world, that it lingers for a year. It is, according to our tradition, the presence we sense in a deceased loved one's absence.
I can testify to this as can anyone who has lost a parent or a close loved one. Just this week I emerged from the first year - first solar year - of my mother's death. And for this whole year I have felt her close. She has crowded my thoughts, visited my dreams, sat in a place of honor for holidays and simches. Whether that is her nefesh staying close out of love or disorientation, I couldn't say. Or maybe it was simply me, stuck in the deep, never-before-broken habit of having a mother.
Either way, the truth is that I do feel a little different this week. I have experienced every landmark of the calendar now without her. And I feel somehow lighter or freer or less pained. I noticed it yesterday on a new year's walk. She was in my memory, in my thoughts, in my enjoyment of the day. But in a different way that I can't quite describe.
I'm now in an in-between state. The solar cycle has completed. Yet, because of the caprices of the Hebrew leap year, I am given another two and a half weeks to mourn, to be an avel, with Mom's first yortzayt falling, ironically, on my father's birthday. And there it is: another gathering. Mom and Dad, he'asfu. Be gathered.
I think I now feel Mom more integrated into me. Her memory stirring pleasantly in my own nefesh. Which makes me wonder something else about Jacob's death. Torah says, vaye'asef el amav.
"He was gathered to his people." We naturally read the reference as being to his predecessors - Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca. Even his dead wives, Leah and Rachel. But Torah doesn't say "his ancestors," and Torah could have if Torah wanted to. Instead it says "his people," which is a term devoid of chronology. It does not need to refer to the ones who came before him. It could refer to his successors: to us! We call ourselves Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, Israel being Jacob's AKA.
At the moment of his last breath, Jacob was gathered into us. And sure enough, here he is still. We carry him inside us. We tell his story. We reënact his life, with sibling tensions and work struggles and heavenly dreams and love foiled and love found and wrestling matches and tearful reunions and an enduring ambition to scratch out some legacy for a world we can't yet foresee. Jacob is withdrawn from this physical world; he is gathered into us and we continue him. The magic of the gathering is that, like the waves and the shore, it is not a net gain or net loss, but a rearrangement, a reconfiguration. Jacob's death is a contraction. And with it comes an expansion in our souls, as his memory comes to be ours, as he comes to be a person not of this earth but of our spirit.
And maybe that is true of all our losses; they do not create emptiness, even if they seem to at first. They form space, maybe early on filled with grief, but later, we hope, filled with love and memory and whatever values and stories and jokes our lost loved ones imparted to us, making us the next great souls whose goodies will in turn belong to others.
One more instance of this tricky verb, asaf, relevant to the question of loss. We read this in Psalm 27:
כי–אבי ואמי עזבוני ויי יאספני
My mother and father have left me, and Adonai gathers me in. Adonai gathers me in. Into an embrace? Maybe God exposes the fullness, the God-ness, of the now-vacated space where father and mother once were. Where they had been, like Jacob, plucked from the vine, retracted like starlight in reverse. And where we look to see emptiness, we find some fullness too. After all, God has a soft spot for spaces that look empty but are full. God has created whole universes inside just such places.
And in this shmitah year, which we talked so much about over the High Holy Days, this fallow year, maybe it will become evident to us that the space we create by curbing our compulsive tinkering in the world is not empty space after all. But full of God or love or spirit. It is not a hole but a wholeness that we find.
May we all gather and be gathered. To each other. To our loved ones who are here. To our loved ones who are gone. So that even as we say, when we must, "Goodbye Mom," we know we are saying "Hello Mom" as well.
Dedicated, as always, to Marilyn Keller.