I want to share with you the plans for tomorrow morning's service in the hope that you will join us. As much as we love to celebrate with our Bar and Bat Mitzvah families, I find the weeks when there is no Bar or Bat Mitzvah allows me to be a bit more creative. Cantor Warschauer will be leading both our Friday night and Shabbat morning service and I hope you will add your voice to the others who will sing with him.
One of my goals for this year is to look for opportunities to teach the Siddur and tomorrow we will allow time in our service for me to do that. The two prayers I plan to focus on are the Song of the Sea and the few paragraphs before that we often read through quite quickly as well as the Psalm for Shabbat. We will do our best to look for explanations in the Siddur that help us learn why this is the Psalm we say on Shabbat. If time allows, I will look for one other prayer to discuss with everyone and be open to questions and comments from the congregation.
Tomorrow we will also spend time learning more about the weekly Torah Portion of Vayechi, the final portion of the Book of Genesis. To get us ready for that discussion, I want to share with you a commentary that I received this week from the Jewish Theological Seminary's weekly D'var Torah. This was written by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Danny Nevins, the Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School and The Division of Religious Leadership at JTS. I hope you find his words as inspiring as I did.
Shabbat Shalom and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow morning.
Rabbi Adam Feldman
Questions of Life and Legacy
This final parashah of Genesis bears a cryptic title: Vayehi, "He (that is, Jacob) lived." Well, of course he lived, and soon he will die, but how has he lived? What legacy does he bequeath? These are the questions that concern Vayehi. What is the Torah's final judgment of Jacob, a man who has wrestled, mourned and rejoiced, deceived and been deceived; a man who has been wounded and yet prevails, who has been humbled by his sons and yet manages to retain enough vigor and authority to command them until his dying breath? How has he lived?
The question of life and legacy pertains also to Jacob's 12 sons as they are summoned to their father's deathbed to hear his final testament. This is not a Hollywood ending with soaring violins and tearful embraces. Jacob is a tough man, and his assessments of the boys are frank and often cutting. He addresses each in turn-how did they live, and what will be the consequences of their deeds?
The same question of life-judgment is especially keen regarding the enigmatic figure of Joseph. Jacob lavishes his favorite son with covenantal blessings (Gen. 49:22-26), calling Joseph a great man, "the elect of his brothers." Still, Jacob's blessing contains obscure images of Joseph, who is also described as a "wild ass." How, in the end, does Jacob regard this son and sometime stranger, a man who has been beloved and despised, enslaved and enriched, magnanimous and vindictive? Joseph has been both dutiful and subversive toward his father. Who, in the final reckoning, is Joseph? How did he live and what is his legacy? . . . .
The Rabbis give Joseph the superlative title of "the Saint" (Yosef Hatzaddik). Whether it is for resisting Potiphar's wife and then crediting God for his ability to interpret dreams, or for his ramified rescue plan for Egypt and his great concern for the physical and even spiritual welfare of his family-in all of these ways Joseph earns the respect of the Rabbis.
I would add another point of admiration for Joseph: in all of his great deeds, he acts alone. To borrow from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's famous title, Joseph is a "lonely man of faith." With whom can he share his faith in God or take counsel? With the brothers who nearly murdered him and then sold him into slavery? With his wife, the daughter of the priest of On? With Pharaoh? Yet for all his isolation, Joseph is never shaken from his abiding faith in God or from his dedication to moral conduct. Joseph does not receive prophecies from God in the same way as his ancestors did. His knowledge of God is the product of dreams and introspection. It is not family, society, or even prophecy that establishes Joseph as a servant of God-he himself must invent his religious persona, and in this he is both extraordinary and accessible.
Joseph is understandable to modern readers because we too function in a seductive society in which our Jewish identity is either hidden or at least partitioned from our more universal identity. Many of us are blessed with supportive families, and few of us suffer the trials of Joseph, but all of us can relate to the demand that we invent our own individual relationship with God. The book of Genesis, the story of Creation, ends with a form of creation that we each undertake-the creation of a life story.
For us, too, the title of the final parashah is a question and a challenge: Vayehi. When our own story is over, when we are spoken of in the past tense, how will others say that we lived? Like Joseph, we will present our heirs with a bundle of contradictions-which of our qualities and deeds will be deemed most significant and representative of the whole? What will have been our distinctive contribution, and what spiritual legacy will we bequeath to others? These are the questions that hovered over the heads of our ancestors, and these are our questions too. As we complete the first book of the Torah, we pray for strength to move through its five stages, growing with our ancestors in merit and in the knowledge of God's path to holiness.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z"l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z"l).