Dvar Torah Parashat Vayechi

Torah from Around the World #359

Parashat Vayechi (Genesis 47:28 – 50:26)

By: Rabbi Paul (Shaul) R Feinberg, PhD*

 

Living Life to the Fullest

“And Jacob lived….” Thus begins the last portion of Genesis recounting the events surrounding the deaths of Jacob-Israel and Joseph. The closing chapters of this narrative convey a kind of select overview of nearly life-long interactions of the brothers/sons of the Patriarch. For the descendents of this founding family of the Jewish people, to this day, such a recounting of family biography signifies a kind of Ethical Will; this is to say, that which may be learned for the future from a parent, and by extrapolation about relations between spouses, children, siblings.

The late Professor Ismar Schoresch, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, addresses this fateful nexus of life and death, recollections and anticipations, “facing our mortality.” [Canon Without Closure, Torah Commentaries –draft copy]. Our teacher shares remarkable insights pertinent to any and all of us, bereaved of loved ones or otherwise, models of emulation. In a midrash {Rabba 9:5 brought by Rabbi Meir} we may be able to relate to our own manner of dealing with life and death. At the end of the sixth day of creation the Torah tells us, “And God saw all that He made and found it very good” (1:31). It is the extra word me’od (very) that makes this instance of refrain noteworthy; following all other days of creation “good” is stated, here “And God saw that this was very good.” Commentators declared that it was the reality of death (a part of the creative process), to which me’od refered, similar in sound to mot, the Hebrew word for death (p.170).

One need not wait for an uplifting paean of praise at a funeral to be reminded of how our vulnerabilities impact on day-to-day self-awareness of our finitude, and how such a reality might well spur us on to do righteous deeds. It may be a stretch, however, to affirm the rabbinic teaching that death is good! Nevertheless, acts of exemplary living by the deceased can lead us to models of behavior for our own progeny, friends, loved ones, students, who carry on after our own deaths.

In this vein, the Psalmist (90:12) points us in a meaningful direction, articulating pleas for meaningful living, not necessarily fixed on the actual quantity of years allotted (“three score years and ten, by reason of strength, four score years” that seemingly pass so quickly.) “Teach us to count our days that we acquire a heart of wisdom.” Indeed, in praise of long life we utter L’chaim at joyful occasions and when partaking of wine. Allow me to interpret the phrase, “…to take account of our days…”: that is we reflect on the quality of each day lived to the fullest, one that will never return. Each moment is a gift in its own right.

Such a mode of attempting to derive the greatest value of life through deeds of sharing, giving and repairing the breaches in the society, calls to mind words of a contemporary poet and literary mainstay, nurturing a powerful ” insight into universal human experience” (from the dust jacket, A Book of Change, 1972, Frederick Morgan, Charles Scribner’s Sons). “To live in the moment, each day as it comes, requires a discipline and cleanliness: it’s not quite giving up hope, but hope becomes an extension of each day’s awareness, not something set aside like a bank account or accumulation of pledges falling due. God speaks from the whirlwind …. It’s death to cling to me, but life to find me” (p 26).

In the last ten days, I was present at the funerals of three uniquely remarkable people, and a memorial celebration of one of the great leaders in the struggle to ensure the observance of human rights of all human beings. It is presumptuous, at the least, to contend that these people fulfilled their responsibilities in making the world a better place on account of a premonition of death. It is hardly apt, at the same time, to argue subconscious motivations directing conscious activity. It is enough to recognize their lives as testimonials to the indefatigable human spirit flowing through life to repair the broken fragments of existence, to nurture those in despair, bringing hope where there is strife.

Exemplifying these leaders of leaders is Rabbi David J. Forman, of blessed memory, whose legacy is honored daily in the organizations he inspired, Interns for Peace, Rabbis for Human Rights. Dearest friends and families, and students far and wide saw to the establishment of the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund five and a half years ago in the days following his death! A staunch protester against the abuse of any person, group, faith or nationality, and faithfully committed to the well-being of the Jewish People, worldwide, and notably in the Land, the State of Israel, with all non-Jewish neighbors, David embodied a legacy that challenges us to action and cheers us daily.

Recently we celebrated his legacy with yet another annual awarding of prizes to three young adults, students working in the grassroots campaigns for the advancement of human rights and narrowing the gap between what is moral and what ought to be in Israeli society — socially, morally, economically and politically. Simultaneously the Memorial Fund chose TAG MEIR, a coalition of over 50 organizations spanning the breadth of Israeli society, religiously, politically and socially acting to oppose the violence, racism, incitement, and brutalization of the “other” whomever this may be, on either side of the “green line”. We were honored by the Chairperson Dr. Gadi Gvaryahu, who surveyed the span of missions of TAG MEIR!

David stood firm against the evils emanating from the Occupation. He was educator par excellence, serving for decades as Israel Director of North American Federation of Temple Youth. The first line of offense and defense for him was his beloved family (the community begins at home!) and no limitation was too great to confront. The art of coalition building bore his unique stamp. Long before illness unmercifully visited him, he was continually laboring against all forces that would compromise his vision of a world in which the Creator demanded our unrelenting zeal.

David speaks for us in calling for the best that can be given, with no assurances of time allotted to repair those broken fragments, as we face our own mortality with every breath. Arising in the morning to expressions of thanks for the return of our souls, falling into slumber recounting the balance of moral debits and surpluses, with commitments to rise anew to the mission of emulating David Forman’s vision, articulated passionately and lovingly in numbers of books, articles and lectures worldwide. The following brings us home…..in his memory (50 Ways of Being Jewish, page 272, Gefen, 2002).

“We are granted the gift of life, although we did nothing to deserve it…Time waits for no one. It could be said that God created time so that not everything would happen at once. Indeed, if we lived forever, we could constantly postpone everything. However given the finitude of time, we cannot…” WE are obliged to offer something of meaning out of that finite piece of eternity as Potok urges, “The day of death is concealed that man may build and plant” (Talmud Kedoshim 18b).

So we confront our mortality, living our lives fully and without reserve, knowing that the gift of time must be invested in “Each moment, each day as it comes…”

 

*Associate Dean, Emeritus and Adjunct Associate Professor of Education, Emeritus; Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Jerusalem, Israel

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We are sharing the sermon through the courtesy of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. We are immensely grateful to the WUPJ.

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