In this week’s parsha, we come to the scene at Jacob’s deathbed. His children are gathered around his bed and Jacob makes a seemingly audacious […]
In this week’s parsha, we come to the scene at Jacob’s deathbed. His children are gathered around his bed and Jacob makes a seemingly audacious statement. He says: “I am going to tell you what happens bachrit ha’yim/in the days to come.” It seems like he is about to reveal the secret – the future. Possibly this refers to slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, revelation – key moments in the future. Or maybe achrit hayamim means the end of days – the time after time ends, the days of the Messiah.
Then nothing is said about what will happen in the future. He immediately begins his “blessing” or assessment of each son. Whatever it was that he had intended to say, he doesn’t say it! Why does he seem to change his mind?
The rabbis offer numerous interpretations, each with important lessons for this moment:
– God stopped him from sharing this prophecy. It is dangerous to know the future; we can’t handle it. Imagine that we had known last year that a pandemic, quarantine, civil unrest would be coming in our future? Sometimes knowing the future only results in upset, malaise and resignation, so it is best not to know.
– Another interpretation imagines Jacob beginning to speak and realizing he does not know what will happen in the future. We can’t always back up the claims we make.
– Another interpretation has Jacob realizing that it was too hard to speak about what he had planned to tell them. It wasn’t God who stopped him; it was his own ability to reconsider his words. That may be an important resolution for the New Year, to think before we speak and resist the urge to say everything that enters our minds.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz suggests that Jacob not saying anything after saying he would is about the audience rather than the content. He pauses realizing that, as much as he wanted to share his insights, they were not capable of hearing it. Listen to what he writes: “When a person describes things or situations that lie within the range of his perception, he has words, concepts, and modes of expression for this. But when Jacob must speak of a phenomenon that is beyond his audience’s range of perception… it turns out that he lacks the vocabulary to express himself…In such a case, there is a block, a real barrier in communication.”
This interpretation captures an essential piece of our current reality. The year 2020 was one in which many realized that, as much as we might explain ourselves, prove our point, or make our case, there were other Americans who simply could not hear what we had to say. Maybe it was always like this, but this past year felt different. So often people could not understand why “they,” the people who think differently, didn’t get it.
Again, Rabbi Steinsaltz, describes the frustration that so many felt: “There are some fundamental gulfs that are impossible to bridge. Nothing can be said to get one’s ideas across; any attempts to do so would be meaningless…It is not a matter of finding the right words, because the right words simply do not exist.”
So what do we do? We find ways to connect, even when we know that the other person might not understand what we hope they would understand. We know that the gulfs have become so deep and angry that there are some with whom we can never connect. But with many, maybe even more than we can imagine, there ARE ways to stay connected. There is a Midrash connected to this scene that gives us guidance. It imagines Jacob on his deathbed wanting so desperately to share his thoughts about how things would turn out. He is burning with the fire so many of us have as parents – to tell our children what they need to understand! Jacob, also known as Israel, is about to speak when he has a vision of God where God says, “You called for your sons, but did not call for Me.” That question reoriented Jacob. He realized he did not need to tell them about the future, but needed instead to help them affirm their faith. In the Midrash, Jacob asks his children: “Will you honor God as our ancestors did?” It is a question that reminds them of faith and essence.
They respond to their father with the famous words of the Shma: Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. Hey Dad (Israel) listen: you can rest easy. We have been paying attention to you all these years. We will be faithful. And with that Israel, Jacob, bows his head and whispers: Baruch Shem Kavod…Blessed be the name of God’s glorious kingdom forever and ever.
The power of this midrash is that instead of sharing words he knows will not be heard, Jacob asks his children a question. And the result is powerful. They respond to his openness with their own openness. They recognize that while their life experiences are different, they share a similar truth. And with that Jacob/Israel can rest.
In our national discourse, and in our personal lives, we’ve spent a lot of times trying to get others to hear us, trying to convince and prove. But maybe we need something different. Maybe we need to ask a question and then wait for the answer and then listen, really listen. While we might not like what we hear, what often emerges is a common belief or value or fear. We might come to realize that we don’t have much in common, but we care for each other or need each other too much to walk away. Being curious forces us to live in the moment. It asks us to be in a real, hard, precarious relationship in a way that speech making does not.
Over the past couple of years, I have shared with you an organization called Better Angels. Better Angels pulls together small groups of people with different political orientations. It began in one city and has spread across the country.
Jacob’s most powerful contribution to us is that he doesn’t share what he hopes his children will hear when he knows that they are not ready to hear it. Instead, he finds shared beliefs and principles. When there are shared principles, connections and unity continue. That is the power of a group like Better Angels; it helps hold us together. And despite the divisive realities of our times, most of us embrace the values of unity and connection with people. Let us be partners in realizing this vision.
May 2021 be a year when we come together creating God’s Kingdom, a place of connection and respect, divergence amidst unity.
Based on sermon by Rabbi Barry Katz