(Parshat Vayechi, Genesis 47:28-50:26)
Diversity can be an excruciating experiment. One person’s story can unravel another’s; our all-too-human desire to be able to narrate our lives in some coherent way can be profoundly challenged by someone else’s need for coherence. At times, diversity fosters a sense of chaos, and efforts to find coherence become especially challenging as our perceptions of difference come into focus. We may feel as if things are coming apart, the fabric of our lives being torn apart.
In this week’s parasha, Vayechi, Jacob is on his deathbed, and he gathers his 12 very different sons, saying he will tell them of “the end of days”—in Hebrew, b’aharit hayamim. According to many of the medieval commentators—Rashi, Rashbam, Ramban, and Sforno – Jacob intends to tell his children of the final redemption of the world, the distant future, the days of the Messiah. Then, abruptly, he utters a lengthy and very carefully structured poem that–like much of what is deemed prophetic in the Tanakh–is almost unintelligible. Despite its careful composition, there is no single characteristic that binds this poem together, and no strategy to decode the obscurity of the words. Oddly, no mention of any apocalypse or final redemption ensues.
The 20th-century scholar Nahum Sarna z”l writes in the JPS Bible Commentary, “This document is the first sustained piece of Hebrew poetry in the Torah … there is much uncertainty of meaning, extreme allusiveness, and considerable double entendre. The chapter is the most difficult segment of the book of Genesis.” He points out that this very strange piece of poetry is often referred to as “Jacob’s Blessing”, and yet, as “…Ibn Ezra recognized long ago, this designation is not strictly accurate because the poem contains material of a very mixed nature. Blessings and curses, censure and praise, geographical and historical observations–all are included.”
“Because the later eschatological meaning of the term ’aharit ha-yamim is not appropriate to the contents of [this] poem,” writes Sarna, “[some] rabbinic exegesis has the divine spirit departing from Jacob just as he was about to reveal to his sons the secrets of messianic times.” In the Talmud, for example, in Pesachim 56a, there is the following midrash.
R. Simeon b. Lakish said: And Jacob called unto his sons, and said: Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you [that which shall befall you in the end of days]. Jacob wished to reveal to his sons the ‘end of the days’, whereupon the Shechinah departed from him. Said he, ‘Perhaps, Heaven forfend! there is one unfit among my children, like Abraham, from whom there issued Ishmael, or like my father Isaac, from whom there issued Esau.’
[But] his sons answered him, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One: just as there is only One in thy heart, so is there in our heart only One.’ In that moment our father Jacob opened [his mouth] and exclaimed, ‘Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.’ (Soncino translation)
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in The Beginning of Desire, suggests that Jacob’s obscure statement about his descendents ultimately expresses concern “…with the question of coherence.” Looking around him at his sons, Jacob sees both the blessing and terror of the future that results in the diversity–the character and virtue, the volatility and dysfunction–of his own children. The Shechinah departs because of the “…father’s anxious sense … of anarchy, of meaninglessness … the vision of things falling apart.” In this moment, Jacob wonders: Can there be unity? Can there be any hope of a viable future, when diversity–it seems–engenders chaos?
How does one understand one’s self, and one’s legacy, when the “readability of one’s life is in question?” In light of Zornberg’s reading of Pesachim, Jacob’s initial vision–of the inherent, if inscrutable, unity at the “end of days”—is obscured when he takes in the reality of each of his children, as well as their archetypal roles. He loses hope and slips into despair, and struggling to articulate something ineffable, composes a confused and hopelessly obscure poem. Experiencing a crisis, he is possessed by the symbols, meter, and structural concerns of poetry.
Jacob’s sons sense his distress, and “answer” him that, despite themselves and the uncertainty of the future, “there is only One.” In their affirmation of his central spiritual perception of the unity that pervades everything, including chaos, Jacob’s hope is restored.. Now reassured by their affirmation of divine unity, he responds and similarly affirms, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.”
In his memoir Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson speaks of hope–“Not that pie in the sky stuff, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather ‘an orientation of the spirit.’ The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future.” Stevenson thus illuminates a new concept of hope: hope is a mitzvah. Which is to say, hope is not something you have; rather hope is something you do.
Jacob’s sons, in response to their father’s anguished and chaotic attempt to impart, chastise, warn, and bless is to stand up, in the place of his hopelessness, and act as witnesses, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One: just as there is only One in thy heart, so is there in our heart only One.”
In these times, so much has been said about the divided nature of our country and our world, about the rapidly shifting demographics, the sharp divides in values, the corruption of power, and violently clashing ideologies. There is a sense of things coming apart at the seams, and many are desperate for a sign of hope that comes from an external source or set of circumstances, or bubbles up from within.
That kind of hope is never guaranteed. But we can shift our focus to a kind that is wholly within our control. Hope, as Stevenson reminds us, can and must be a practice, a commitment to “orient the spirit” and “stand in a place of hopelessness”, allowing ourselves and others to envision a better, less fractured future.
Rabbi Elisha Herb serves the community of Temple Beth Sholom in Salem, Oregon. A 2016 graduate of the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, he is also a wilderness river guide for the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education in Monticello, Utah.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.