Parashat Vayechi 5778

Rabbi Ariel J. Friedlander – 29 December 2017

What does darkness mean to you? Is it the cloak for unknown danger? Does its cover give an advantage to your enemies? We feel vulnerable in the dark, and for those of us in the Northern hemisphere, there is little natural light at this time of year. Tradition teaches that we invite the sun to return to the physical world by lighting the lights of Chanukah. We begin gently, shyly, with a single light for the first night. Each night we add a light, building on what was there in order to push the darkness further and further away, ending with a glorious fiery statement of rededication. And then that great star, without which our earth would perish, turns her face towards us once again. As my late father used to say to me, “it works!”

Yet Chanukah is past, the miracle of the oil has been exposed as a myth, and the darkness is still with us. Ritual and science may bring us physical light, but we cannot forget that our souls also need a beacon to show the path. We need energy to turn ourselves to the world, and the world to healing. We need hope to move ourselves forward. For those of us for whom the miraculous cruse no longer shines, where may we find the first candle to light our way?

In this week’s Torah portion of Vayechi, Jacob is on his deathbed. He wishes to put his affairs in order, and calls for his favourite child, Joseph. Jacob asks Joseph to treat him with chesed ve’emet. He wants Joseph to swear that he will not be buried in Egypt, but that his bones will be returned to rest with his ancestors in the Cave of Machpelah. Joseph makes this promise, and fulfills it as soon as the days of mourning for Jacob are completed. The medieval commentator Rashi highlights the phrase chesed ve’emet. He translates it as true kindness[1], teaching us that since it can have no reward, a kindness done for the dead is the ultimate kindness. Such a deed is considered to be the highest form of a mitzvah, and Joseph does not hesitate to perform it, thus becoming an exemplar from generation to generation.

In our search for inspiration, could chesed be the first step on our spiritual journey? At its basic level, kindness is simply the desire to help others – how might this heal the world? What about Faith, or Love, or Justice? Look, we are just at the beginning. Let us start with something doable.

Our world is utterly hectic as we rush from commitment to responsibility with eyes firmly focused on our next appointment. However, there is always time for a small act of kindness. And if you compliment a person in the lift on their cool snow-boots, if you wave at a child in a pushchair as they pass you on the street, if you ask a checkout person how their day is going while they are ringing up your groceries – to what do such acts lead? You have seen this person. They have been seen. Kindness shines a light upon the other. To know that you are seen is a sign that you are no longer in the dark. And the energy that this experience gives you will, in turn, have a positive effect on the next living being you encounter. Such reciprocity sets up a chain of chesed[2], building on what was received, and pushing the darkness further and further away.

2017 has shown us once again that when terror and disaster strike, our first impulse is always altruistic. From the bravery of those who run towards danger, to the generosity of those who offer shelter and supplies, our instinct is to help each other. We just need to learn how to do it better on a daily basis, and without the drama! As the Twelfth Time Lord said, “Laugh hard. Run fast. Be Kind.”

May we be inspired by Joseph’s chesed ve’emet, and add our kindness to the light. May this rededication of our souls invite Shechinah to turn her face towards us once again. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek!
 
 

[1] A hendiadys, i.e., the expression of a single idea by two words connected with ‘and’, when one could be used to modify the other. [2] A thought developed after listening to Rav Leo Dee’s podcast on this portion at www.webyeshiva.org
 

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