Jacob, MLK and the Inauguration

One summer when I was in high school, I was concerned about the upcoming fall semester. In particular, I was worried about my driver’s ed class. Not wanting to be embarrassed, I wanted to know how to drive before I started taking the class. So I asked my father to teach me to drive. My father was a very pragmatic person, whose routine answer to “how do I do this?” was always “very carefully.” He refused to teach me. What I learned then is how uncomfortable it is to live in a time of transition.

This is a time of many transitions. Of course the inauguration is looming. Closer to home, in our synagogue this past Shabbat, we welcomed two dozen new member households. New members always contribute to our community in ways that change us. For these individuals and families, joining a new temple will also bring changes. And this past Shabbat, we read the end of one book, Breishit (Genesis); this coming Shabbat we will begin Shemot (Exodus). We ended with Jacob’s triumphant reunion with his son Joseph in Egypt; the next book opens with the enslavement of their descendants, generations later.

I have since learned something about the power of transitions, whether the beauty of sunrise, the mystery of twilight, or the growth that comes when children grow and move on.

Last week’s portion highlighted the transition from one generation to the next. Jacob knows he is about to die. He gives a special blessing to Joseph’s two sons, his grandsons Menashe and Efrayim. Jacob offers a last will and testament, naming each of his twelve sons. And late in the portion, Jacob dies and is embalmed, and Joseph fulfills his father’s fervent wish to be buried with his forebears back in Canaan. We also read of Joseph’s death, and his wish to be brought back to Canaan (fulfilled by Moses generations later).

The Hasidic teacher Rabbi Moshe Chayim Efrayim gives us a unique and surprising perspective on the value of this time of change.

“Joseph commanded his servants, the healers, to embalm his father. And they embalmed (vayachantu)” Jacob. (50:2-3).

Rabbi Moshe focuses on the word for embalming (vayachantu)—a sign of death—and connects it to a similar word in Song of Songs, “The fig tree has brought forth (chantah) its green figs” (2:13)—a sign of new life. That is, when we face a time when something dies, it is also an opportunity for something new to come about

Our teacher says “And this is what is hinted at by they embalmed (vayachantu), namely, the righteous heal us spiritually, and make us like new beings by causing our light to sprout anew.”

In this winter season, we understand that the death of last year’s flowers and plants makes room for new growth in the spring. What is true in nature, is true spiritually as well. When we face loss of any kind, by letting go we make room for something new to arise. When we perceive a light going out in one place, rather than straining to rekindle a dying ember, we should be working to bring new light into the world.

Dr. King wrote in March of 1958, “…It may be that our generation will have to repent not only for the diabolical actions and vitriolic words of the children of darkness, but also for the tragic apathy of the children of light. What we need is a restless determination to make the ideal of brotherhood a reality in this nation and all over the world.” (The Current Crisis in Race Relations)

This is a time of transition. We have had some time to mourn our losses. Now, with the new day dawning, it is our task to rekindle the light, to face the new day with our ideals intact, with our souls renewed, awakened to new possibilities, and with a newborn resolve that will make the light shine anew.

Posted on January 18, 2017 .