Parashat Vayechi: Dancing in the Present

[Drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, January 1, 2010]

Happy new year, everyone. I love this new year, this "secular" new year. Despite our calling it secular, I always notice that people nearly universally find it a deeply meaningful passage point. Sure, as Jews we have our own High Holy Days; we do all sorts of spiritual work around it. But the world itself, at that time of year, doesn't offer us the same evidence of passage of time that this new year does. Rosh Hashanah Lam'lachim - the New Year of the Kings, this day is called in Talmud. It is the dark time of the year, but now, 10 days after the Solstice, we can finally begin to sense the return of the sun, the growing of the light. It is a New Year that is about this Creation we live in, and I think we all feel it.

On this day and the evening leading to it, we all sense something passing away and we all sense something new approaching. Isn't that why this new month is called January, after the Roman god Janus, the one with two faces, one looking forward and one looking back? Similarly we, completing a year, completing a decade, look back at our lives, our accomplishments, our failings, and we can't help but make resolutions to brace ourselves for the year to come. We might make lists of not easily achievable goals: losing weight, learning Spanish, handling money better, going to shul more. These kinds of resolutions are what Mary Poppins calls "pie crust promises" - easily made, easily broken.

Even if we resist articulating the unachievable, we still think of our lives as being marked by and measured by calendar years, and we wonder: will this be the year that I find love, will this be the year my ship comes in, or chas v'chalilah, will this be a year in which things happen that I don't want to happen. This kind of reflection may be officially secular but it certainly takes place in a spiritual realm. We look back and we look forward, and what we look forward to is closely connected to what we see when we look back.

We're very lucky this year that new years happens during our reading of Parashat Vayechi, the reading that wraps up the Book of Genesis. In it we also look forward and back. We have our last visit with Jacob, after his long life of exile and return, wrestling and reconciliation, renaming, regret, and retirement. Jacob is dying in the land of Goshen, the Egyptian province he and his sons live in by merit of Joseph's high position in the administration. Jacob calls his sons to his side and speaks a sort of prophecy to each of them. He calls out a few of them for their crimes. Others he praises. With some of his sons he predicts success or failure or a special purpose. These are Jacob's parting shots - mysterious, poetic, kind of unpleasant. He goes on to charge his sons with burying him in the Cave of Machpelah, alongside his wife Leah, his parents, Isaac and Rebecca, and his grandparetns, Abraham and Sarah. When he finishes this charge, he is at last done. Torah describes his death this way:

ויאסף רגליו אל־המטה ויגוע ויאסף אל־עמיו

Vaye'esof raglav el-hamitah vayigva vaye'asef el-amav.

And he gathered his feet into the bed, and expired,
and was gathered to his peoples. (Genesis 49:33)

I love this image of Jacob drawing his feet into the bed. His walking days, his travelling days, his footsteps in our people's story are over. And that the Hebrew uses the same verb - le'esof - to assemble, to collect, for Jacob's gathering of his feet into the bed and Jacob's being gathered to his people. At his last moment he collects himself. And then he is collected. A beautiful death, the kind we all might pray for. Calm and, well, collected.

Jacob, in his last words, looks forward and he looks back. His prophecies, his premonitions spoken to his sons, reach well beyond their immediate future. He is prophesying elements of later Israelite history, when the tribes named after these sons live side-by-side, sometimes peaceably, sometimes tensely, in the Land of Israel. His words are not exactly words of blessing, but with these worries and warnings, he is able to let go of the future.

But he also has to let go of the past. He remembers back to where he came from, the Old Country, and he asks his children to carry his bones back there, to the place where his loved ones are buried. Revealed in this request is Jacob's sense of being a stranger. His journey was long and full but it did not bring him home. And so he arranges for his past to be his future, for his bones to rest in the place he came from.

Many of us here in Northern California are also, like Jacob, transplants. We left the droughts of our youth, thirsting maybe not for water, but for acceptance, for adventure, for love, for freedom. We sought our redemption in the farthest end of this country.

Some of us, though, still struggle with conflicting senses of "home". Like Jacob, there is a cemetery plot for me in my Old Country. In Chicago. My parents bought these plots just before my father died, since the plots they already owned didn't have enough room for both their children and our partners. My life is here now. The idea of having a piece of earth for my bones 2600 miles seems silly. On the other hand, my rootedness in Chicago is deep, and I work hard in my life to try to recreate that same feeling of rootedness that I grew up with. Of course, that rootedness is itself an illusion. Two generations earlier, it was Chicago that was the new turf, replacing a tiny Russian shtetl that had become, in Irena Klepfisz's words, "the inhospitable soil."

In Torah, the Book of Genesis is our Old Country, the story of our origins. With this parashah we leave it and move to our story of redemption. What happens next in Torah? We begin the Book of Exodus with a new pharaoh and the enslavement of the Hebrews, culminating with the escape from Egypt and the crossing of the sea.

We are at the turning of the page between the narrative of our origin and the narrative of our redemption. But aren't we always at that place in our lives? The stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve is perhaps the one moment of the year when we are truly aware of the tiny pinpoint of the present in which we're living! We are always balancing on that scant moment between past and future, between our roots and our redemption, between the journeys of our past and the promised land we still dream for ourselves.

But I'd also venture to say that these are not separate places. The parashah continues just a little longer, with what seems like the epilogue to all of Genesis. Joseph also grows old, old enough to know his great grandchildren, and he also enjoins his family to bring his bones out of Egypt when they at last leave. And he dies. And later, in the Book of Exodus, when Moses and the Children of Israel depart, they indeed carry Joseph's bones with them. They bring the past into the future.

And so do we all. We drag the past with us. We have no choice. Whether we embrace it or reject it, it is part of us. Home is not the Chicago that sits in the Midwest, but the home that is in my heart, that urges me on to create a life that's solid and warm and filled with music. I cannot let go of my past to claim a fresh future. As the ancient rabbi eulogizes at the funeral of Louis's grandmother in Tony Kushner's play, Angels in America:

Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America.... No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes -- because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture and home.

The past is in us. We cannot shake it. We imagine the future before us, but the past is there too. When we stand in this inch of Torah between Genesis and Exodus, between origin and redemption, this inch of parchment with no words, the silent place where we have to make up our own Torah -- which is, in fact, where we live our lives -- at that moment, past and future are all around us, enveloping and embracing us.
We have a tradition when we complete the reading of a book of Torah. We finish our reading and say together the words chazak chazak v'nitchazek. "Be strong, be strong, and together we will be strengthened." As if we know that in these moments of pause, this moment of the present, when when we reflect on our past and brace for our future, that those are our moments of doubt, of vulnerability. The moments when we need, like Jacob, to collect ourselves. And so chazak chazak v'nitchazek. Be strong, be strong, and together we will be strengthened.
It is the new year, the turning of the page. Every moment is the new year, the turning of the page. We balance on the page's edge, we dance in the inch of empty parchment, we kiss our loved ones and replace the calendar on the wall.
Chazak chazak v'nitchazek.