Rabbi Janet Burden – 3 January 2020
In every person’s life, there are a number of clear, defining moments – moments when that realisation hits that nothing, nothing will ever be the same again. Sometimes these moments are intensely personal, known only to ourselves or to our immediate circle of family and friends. Others affect communities and even nations, occasionally even defining the character of an entire era.
The year 1968 was such a watershed moment for me. Here in Europe, there was the Prague spring and the student uprisings that inspired a general strike in France, electrifying youth around the world. In America, there were the Vietnam protests and the infamous Democratic Convention in Chicago. But more than anything else, 1968 was the year when some despaired, believing that the dream had died: Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.
It is easy to say in retrospect that the converse was true – that these events, while undeniably tragic, were what transformed King’s dream, in particular, into a reality. Enormous gains were subsequently made for American’s black community. Would anyone, back in 1968, have been able to guess that less than 40 years later, groups like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) would have become so obsolete that even their names sound quaint? And yet, the future was set in motion at one defining moment in history – the fateful year 1968. It’s an excellent example of the importance of perspective in assessing events.
I was thinking about defining moments when I came to look at our Torah portion for this week. It relates one of those watershed points, when the course of our story changed forever. This is the moment when our ancestor, Jacob, learns that Joseph is not dead but has survived and thrived in the land of Egypt.
Jacob’s emotion is obvious when he first learns that Joseph is still alive. Most translations say that his heart fainted at the news – but literally, the Hebrew reads more like “his heart stopped”. It is as if he cannot take in the news that his son has become vizier of all Egypt. He finally says, Rav od Yosef b’ni chai, elchah v’erenu b’terem amut. One could either translate this as, “It is enough that my son Joseph still lives, I will go and see him before I die,” or “It is [too] much [to take in] that my son Joseph still lives….” Jacob has to go to Egypt, or he will never believe the truth of what he has been told. Thus he agrees to go with all his family. The text is careful to tell us that no-one is left behind: all his sons and his grandsons and his daughters and his granddaughters climb onto wagons and go to join Joseph.
It is for the good of all the extended family that they should leave Canaan. The famine is still hard upon the land, and their – our – very survival depends on it. It is only because we know how the story unfolds that our hearts sink a little when reading these words. I suspect that this is why the Biblical writer includes in his narrative the vision containing God’s reassuring promises: promises for Jacob, and, I would argue, promises for us.
Jacob is, as always, caught up with his own concerns. In response to his anxiety, God tells him that his beloved Joseph shall be the one to close his eyes when his soul departs. I don’t think it’s being cynical to say that this is what most concerns him in this heavenly message – it is entirely in keeping with what we know of Jacob’s character. He has always shown more concern for himself, his own comfort and needs than in anything else. The man who bargained with God on the way to Padam Aram is still with us. Despite the blessings of a large family and considerable wealth, he still feels cheated. Perhaps this is because he has had to live many of his years without his favourite wife and her first-born son. Why else would he say to Pharaoh, “Few and evil have been the years of my life”? Even when he later describes the death of Rachel, he can’t help revealing this somewhat selfish aspect of his character. “Rachel died on me,” he says – as if she let him down by dying in childbirth.
That is why I think most of the vision’s message is really intended for us, rather than a patriarch. We are reminded that it shall be in Egypt that Jacob’s descendents will become a great nation. That interjection of perspective relieves at least a bit of the tension our foreknowledge creates. We know, too, that it is not merely in numbers that Israel will become great. The collective experience of oppression and redemption will be what will forge our character as a people. Throughout our generations, it is what has caused the Jewish soul cry out against prejudice and hatred, against oppression and injustice. And to return for a moment to 1968 – it is what caused so many Jews to be involved in the civil rights struggle, and to see through the dream that might have died.
My point here is simple, really. Right now, we might be living through one of history’s defining moments. It is only in retrospect that anyone might realise the significance of events. There are many things that we know to be wrong in our world: global warming, economic oppression, social injustice. We don’t have that omniscient Biblical narrator to tell us that it’s all going to be all right. But what we do have is the story of our people, particularly the core narrative that we will begin reading in two weeks time: the story of the Exodus. If we allow ourselves to be inspired by it, perhaps when we reflect on our own lives, we will be able to identify the watershed moments of our own time – and be proud of the role we took in them.
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