Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Parashat Vayehi: On Protection and Connection

On his death-bed, Yaakov gives the following blessing to his grandchildren, Menasheh and Efraim:

The God before whom my fathers Avraham and Yitzhak walked,
The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day,
The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm
-----Bless the lads [Hebrew, ne’arim].
In them may my name be recalled,
And the names of my fathers Avraham and Yitzhak,
And may they grow into teeming multitudes upon the earth (Genesis 48:15-16).

Yaakov offers two blessings here: protection and connection -- the blessing of protection from God above and the blessing of connection to those who came before (Avraham and Yitzhak ) and to those who will come after (the teeming multitudes). May these children feel protected from all harm by God’s watching Angel. And may they feel that they are a link to the past and the future, standing between their ancestors and the growing future nation.

These two blessings are not separate here, but deeply intertwined. The protection comes from the God before whom our ancestors walked. It is through our connection to them that we learn to rely on God and to feel protected.

The form of the blessing expresses this message as well. The names Avraham and Yitzhak appear at the beginning of the blessing and at its end, and right in the middle— enclosed in the protective shell of their ancestors and their ancestors’ God - are the ne’arim, the children. It is their connection to the past and to the Angel who saved their parents that will serve as a comforting enveloping presence as they make their way and become multitudes upon this earth.

Yaakov knows from trouble in his life. When he looks into his descendants’ future, surely he sees that they, too, will face great trouble, years of slavery and oppression. He cannot undo this future. All he can do is offer them a sense of protection, a sense of being enclosed and watched over, like a shepherd watches his flock. And this sense of protection, he tells them, comes from above, from God, and also from behind and in front, from the ancestors who believed in God, and from the future generations who will carry on the tradition.

In the words of the midrash (made famous by a Mordecai ben David song), we are ma’aminim benei ma’minim, believers, the children of believers.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Parashat Vayigash: On Hiddenness and Revelation

Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers in this week’s parsha after a long period of hiding behind the mask of an Egyptian viceroy.

Hiddenness and revelation -- these concepts usually refer to God. Indeed, mystical interpreters like the Sefat Emet see this narrative as a parable for the soul’s search for the hidden aspects of God in the world.

There is support for such a reading in the narrative itself. Yosef is the first of our ancestors not to have direct communication from God, to live in a world – like ours – where God’s purpose is hidden. Yosef’s recourse is interpretation; he learns to see, or rather, to read, God’s purpose in dreams and life events. When he reveals his identity to his brothers, he also reveals something about God -- his interpretation of God’s role in his life, of God’s purpose in sending him down to Egypt to provide food for the family and for others. In a world where God is as hidden as Yosef is himself, divine revelation comes via interpretation.

Revelation is achieved by other means as well. Yehuda, too, plays a role in the process of unveiling Yosef’s identity. Through the speech which begins this parsha, he in effect forces Yosef to reveal himself. A midrash in Breishit Rabbah brings the following parable to illustrate Yehuda’s actions: It is like a deep well of fresh, cool water that no one can drink from because of its depth. Along comes a wise person and ties cord to cord, and thread to thread, until he is able to reach the fresh water at the bottom and draw it back up for all to drink.

Yehuda’s lengthy speech ties word to word and sentence to sentence to dig down deeper and deeper, reaching for the secret that he must have sensed lay hidden inside of this strange Egyptian viceroy. The midrash is an apt illustration of Yehuda’s task in relation to his brother Yosef – to uncover the depths of his hiddenness and to pull him back out of the pit they threw him into. But the midrash – with its use of the evocative figure of well water -- also seems to be reaching farther, to be implying a spiritual quest, an attempt to draw out of the depths of the world and all its hiddenness the cool fresh waters of spiritual sustenance, of divine revelation.

The midrash may also be referring to its own hard-won insights into the depths of the Torah. For the rabbis, the Torah is a deep well of secrets to be mined by those who – like themselves -- know how to tie cord to cord (and verse to verse) and keep digging until the fresh cool waters of the Torah’s secrets are forced to reveal themselves.

Revelation can be achieved by many means – by interpretation, by perseverance, and perhaps also through the kind of honesty, bravery and selflessness displayed by Yehuda in his speech. The key is to believe that there is something hidden to reveal in the first place, to have a sense of mystery about the universe, to be willing to dig deeply in the world and in the Torah in the hopes of reaching those fresh cool waters of revelation and inspiration.