Stories help survival

This is a D'var Torah (like a sermon) given at my synagogue on the final chapters of the Book of Genesis.  Please enjoy:



In this week’s Torah portion the Children of Israel reach a crossroads and the question of their future survival comes up, a survival without a direct link to God through an individual. As we close the book of Bereshit (Genesis) and tie up loose ends we also find that the story takes a bit of a pause. Next week we are transported generations into the future and watch the Israelites enter into slavery in Egypt.

Two significant deaths occur in this portion. Jacob and Joseph both die. Their deaths mark the end of the time of the patriarchs, and for generations the Torah is silent about what happens with the people. We can only assume God’s silence as well through their time in Egypt. Throughout the Genesis narrative God seems to find someone to help instill the people with a sense of identity and reveal God’s own purpose for them. Now we find the Children of Israel thriving in Egypt without any record God intervening. When we do turn the page next week we find a stark change, with slavery being imposed. Then for the majority of the next 4 books, the Torah discusses the development of People Of Israel, through the Exodus and the wandering in the desert, the giving of the Torah and finally entering the land of Israel. It is as if the book of Genesis is simply prologue. Even Joseph hints at this when his brothers come to him after Jacob’s death. Fearing Joseph would take revenge for their treatment of him, they plead with him for mercy. But Joseph, not seeking revenge basically says, “no worries, this is all part of God’s plan”. His words suggest that all of this is leading up to something much greater than their current situation. That his suffering was simply part of a plan.

So closing out Genesis we move into a time with the Israelites having to move ahead without a direct connection to God. Jacob worried about what would happen to his descendants. Surrounded by the comforts of Egypt and far from the land of their ancestors Jacob was afraid they would forget God. He gathers his children to his bedside, and near death he wishes to tell them their future as a people, a vision he was shown by God, but when he tries to retell what he knows, no words come. This further brings fear to Jacob. He blesses each son, but is unsettled by the notion that he cannot instill in them the hope of the future. But his fears are not realized. For when they become aware of Jacob’s fear, the Talmud teaches us that Jacob's children responded:


"Sh'ma Israel Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad, Listen Israel,(Using Jacob’s name given to him when he wrestled with the mysterious figure in the wilderness) the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One." They said "Just as in your heart there is only One God, so, too, in our heart there is only One." At that moment Jacob responded whispering, "Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto L'olam Va'ed, Blessed is the Name and glorious kingdom forever and ever." [Pesachim 56a]

With these words, they assure their father that they truly accept the One God and that the Jewish people will continue.

So before he dies he asks his family to bring his body back to Canaan and bury him in the Cave of Machpelah, with his ancestors. This reinforces the connection to the past in his children. They do this with all the fanfare of Egyptian royalty.

Joseph also dies but he is buried in an Egyptian royal ceremony in a Sarcophagus, in Egypt. But as he died he too asked that when the Children of Israel finally leave Egypt they take his bones with them, back to the land of his fathers and mothers following in the tradition of Jacob.

This connection to the land and to our ancestors is an important part of our people. In Egypt our people remembered the connection back to a time when God walked with the Matriarchs and Patriarchs. For us we link generation to generation through those stories we read every week in our Torah, a Torah handed down through the millennia. We repeat that handing down again today from one generation to another symbolically as Jordan becomes a Bar Mitzvah and takes on the responsibility of bringing Judaism into the future. Like Jacob’s descendants, he and his generation will do this by building on a foundation that has been planted in him by family and community. Judaism has always relied on looking back to where we came from while moving forward, forging a new definition of who we are in each generation, and building on that past. The Torah and the sages’ comments on it throughout history give us our foundation. Jacob’s children kept the burning ember of their identity alive in Egypt with the memory of what they knew of the God of Abraham and Sarah. These were the family stories, the history. This memory is symbolized in the Midrash in the person of Sirach bat Asher. Her name is listed in the Torah among those who went into Egypt with Jacob. Later the same name appears in the list of those who came out with Moses, generations later. The Rabbis tell us it was the same person, ageless and immortal. She takes on a mystical role in the story of our people, like a Forrest Gump or a Zelig type, who is there at important moments. Her duty is to carry the memories of the people and to remind them of what they might have forgotten. She is credited with remembering the promise to Joseph to take his bones when the people leave and even leads Moses to the place of his unmarked and long lost grave. While her legendary long life in some stories extends into modernity, she is a symbol of that which we should all strive for, to keep in mind the past. She is the keeper of the stories. Sirach’s voice reminds the people of what the ancient ancestors did in their time and how they encountered God. These encounters help us seek how we too can encounter God in our own time. We are a product of our past. The past is not a burden to carry but a wheel to help us move through our own time and allow our children to glide into the future.

It has helped sustain the Jewish people in good times and bad. We recently celebrated the holiday of Hanukah, a holiday that celebrates the success of a small group of zealots who fought against the Assyrians who wanted to end Jewish practice. What is often missing when we tell the story is that many Jews living under the rule of the Assyrians were happily giving up their traditions and adopting the Greek-influenced culture of the time. The Macabees, whether you like them or not, remembered the importance of being Jewish and fought back to maintain their identity. What is interesting is that this minor holiday has taken on a whole new meaning in the modern Diaspora as its proximity to Christmas has transformed it into a much more powerful statement of identity. For some elevating Hanukah is seen as an attempt at assimilation, but it can also be seen as a way of transforming our traditions to express identity publically and showing that we too can remember our past while living in the present. As long as the center of our celebration continues to be about our history and not a desire to share someone else’s.

We can see a similar and more significant response to modernity after the Enlightenment in Europe, Jews, having more opportunity to be part of the larger society transformed Judaism to create a balance between their present day experiences and our tradition of the past. Judaism survived the change because at the heart of the movement was an honoring of the fundamentals of Judaism, it was a thoughtful approach. The movements that developed gave birth to a way to continue to express a Jewish identity while not isolating ourselves from community and discovery. It was the outgrowth of that freedom of thought that helped to create the two movements this very synagogue affiliates with and allows us to express of Judaism in a way that matches our philosophy and understanding of God and the universe.

Our differences are still there, even as we blend more naturally today into the tapestry of our culture. It isn’t always easy to be part of the minority. Thinking back to Hanukah, often when faced with questions about our relationship to Christmas our response is “We’re Jewish, we don’t have Christmas we have Hanukah”. This sometimes is lampooned as a second rate holiday, nothing like the spectacular of Christmas. While our celebration of Hanukah is part of what defines us as a people, it is not our whole story. My friend and teacher, Ron Wolfson tries to look at that answer differently. He says.

“’We're Jewish--we have Hanukkah’ is only the beginning of the response. ‘We're Jewish, and we have Hanukkah, Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot, Purim, Simchat Torah, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Lag B'Omer, Yom Ha'atzma'ut, Tu B'shvat--and, most importantly, Shabbat every week.’


The child who has experienced the building of a sukkah will not feel deprived of trimming a tree. The child who has participated in a meaningful Passover Seder will not feel deprived of Christmas dinner. The child who has paraded with the Torah on Simchat Torah, planted trees at Tu B'shvat, brought first fruits at Shavuot, given mishloah manot at Purim, and welcomed the Shabbat weekly with candles and wine and challah by the time that child is three years old he or she will understand that to be Jewish is to be enriched by a calendar brimming with joyous celebration.”

Judaism survived the dark days of slavery in Egypt, the wandering in the desert, conquest after conquest, modernity, and our present day dilemmas because in our heart as a people we, like the Children of Jacob, The Children of Israel, we remember our stories and our fundamental connection to the One God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, so as we worry about the future of Judaism like Jacob did so long ago. When we remember who we are as a people, not in response to our neighbors but as a distinct part of our community we thrive. I think of those here today and especially the young people, our children, and I can say Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad and know that Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto, L’olam Va’ed.


Have a happy and health 2012 and Shabbat Shalom.

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