Living as a Jew in December, Vayechi 5782

This week, our portion is named “Vayechi,” which means “he lived.” I’d like to take a few moments to discuss how this verb is formed, because it sheds light on the internal perspective of our Bible. Often, a verb in the Bible begins with a vav. This can indicate a conjunction – that’s a fancy word to include “and,” “but,” “however.” On the other hand, it can be a “reversing vav.” So, yichi without the vav indicates an ongoing action, or an action that will take place in the future. With the vav, we know that it was an ongoing action in the past. This is the brilliance of the Biblical mind. Their concept of time was not the same as our concept. Their verbs, their actions, are not in the past, present, or future. Rather, actions are completed, they are occurring now, or they may occur in the future. The stream of time in Biblical Hebrew is more fluid than the finite breaks of modern grammar.

This perspective also helps us understand the internal purpose of the narrative we are completing this week. For Israelites, there was never a need to record Exactly What Happened. That concept of history is not part of the BIble. Rather, each story is meant to help us deepen our understanding of our present moment and our connection to our spiritual community. 

The weekly Torah portion, VaYechi

With this background in mind, please listen to the first sentence of this week’s Torah portion.

Jacob lived seventeen years in the land of Egypt, so that the span of Jacob’s life came to one hundred and forty-seven years.

וַיְחִ֤י יַעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם שְׁבַ֥ע עֶשְׂרֵ֖ה שָׁנָ֑ה וַיְהִ֤י יְמֵֽי־יַעֲקֹב֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיָּ֔יו שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֔ים וְאַרְבָּעִ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָֽה׃

Why do we need to know that Jacob lived in the land of Egypt, in Eretz Mitzrayim? What does it mean to live? And why did our forefather’s life end in Egypt rather than in the Holy Land?

Mitzrayim: the narrow place, the place of constraint

Here’s where the Jewish mind and a strict understanding of Hebrew grammar differ. The folk etymology of the word Mitzrayim connects it to Maytzarim, which means “distress” or “constraints.” This is why you may hear me describe Egypt as the narrow place within us. Whether or not the two Hebrew words are actually connected, the Jewish mind has built on the similarity between the words to build worlds of meaning into our text.

So Jacob lived in the narrow place before he died. He didn’t have the hero’s journey of going through difficulty early in life and then experiencing complete peace before dying. Instead, he left the promised land and saw his family prosper in exile.

Jacob experienced a taste of our lives. For the most part, being Jewish in America, in this part of the diaspora, is not a cause of tsuris. Our daily lives are not filled with aggravation or chas v’shalom, fear, because of our Jewish identities.

Reflecting on December as a Jew

And yet, December in particular can be a time of increased awareness of our difference from mainstream American society. I want to be clear that I do not harbor any ill will towards Temple Beth David families who choose to celebrate Christmas. Rather, I am reflecting on what the season has meant for me, as an individual and as a mother.

My family doesn’t celebrate Christmas and helping our kids navigate this season has been a growth opportunity for me as a parent and as a spiritual leader.

I experience tension during this season. On the one hand, I am patriotic and love my neighbors. On the other hand, I am choosing to stand aside from the Christmas celebrations.

For our family, Santa Claus has loomed large over the past week, as Santa and Mrs. Claus visited our children’s public school on Wednesday. This tension, between deep gratitude for the fullness of our lives, and acknowledging that we live in the Diaspora, is reflected in the way Jacob’s life ended in physical security, though spiritually disconnected from our people’s homeland.

We must choose to fully live in each moment. Life is not always easy. Holding onto our separate identity as Jews can be difficult. Yet, ultimately, it is the most soul-nourishing gift we can give to ourselves and to our children.

Back to the Torah: blessing our children

Let’s return to the first sentence from our Torah portion.

Jacob lived 17 years in Egypt. The Midrash points out that he lived in Egypt for as long as Joseph lived with his family before being sold into slavery by his brothers. Before he dies, Jacob blesses his male offspring. He begins by blessing the children of Joseph. Jacob provides a larger blessing to the younger child, Ephraim, than he does to the older child, Menasheh. And it is from his words that the practice began to bless Jewish children at the beginning of Shabbat. Traditionally, we tell our boys “may God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.” We tell our girls, “may God make you like Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” What does it mean to bless our children?

That was the first question I was asked when I started rabbinical school. In truth, I dropped the class. I realized I could not wrestle with questions about Jewish practice until I started being more diligent in doing Jewish. So, I started to bless my children on Friday nights.

First, we light Shabbat candles. Then, we bless our children. After invoking our ancestors, Ephraim and Menasheh, we chant the priestly blessing. Next, we sing Shalom Aleichem, to welcome angels into our Shabbat experience. We conclude the sanctification of Shabbat with the Kiddush that Cantor Orly chanted for us this evening.

Blessing other people is an act of faith

Blessing other people is an act of faith. It is our opportunity to humbly open ourselves up to the unknown. For me, it is an opportunity to invite God into our lives. We pray that each of our children are able to truly live into the deepest part of themselves and to become who they are meant to be. I am not literally asking my kids to become the leaders of tribes, with my younger son outshining my older son. Rather, I am hoping that they will live into their Jewish souls and become the fullest version of themselves.

Our weekly blessing is a reminder that each child is a vessel of holy light. The souls we are blessed to know are shadows of the Divine. This is what it means to believe that we are all B’tzelem Elohim, we are all made in the image of God. 

Embrace how we each reflect the Divine

Welcoming Shabbat is not just a time to bless children. It is also a time to kvell about all of our family members. This is why a traditional prayer book includes the Eshet Chayil passage from Proverbs 31 as part of the Friday night at-home rituals. Eshet Chayil means “a woman of strength.” We are proud of how strong our family members are. We appreciate the unique gifts each member of our community brings to this world. The ability to make a living matters. Friendships matter. Our dedication to our community matters. Each of us matters in the deepest sense of the word. We are each shadows of the Divine. We each have the opportunity to bring light into the world and to truly live. May we each embrace our journey and allow ourselves the opportunity to sink into our deepest selves. 

Shabbat shalom.

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