An Anti-Narrative to ‘Happily Ever After’ – Parshat Vayechi 5775

For a printable PDF Version Click here:  Vayichi – An Anti-narrative to ‘Happily Ever After’ 5775

‘Happily Ever After’ and The Messianic Vision:

It is not an easy time to be living in Israel.  The continuing existential threats from our neighbours, random terrorist incidents, internal political scandals and a forthcoming unnecessary and lack lustre election, have left the average Israeli in a despairing state. Where are we heading, what is our future? Is there an end in sight to these dark days?

The Jews who lived in exile for so many thousands of years could only have dreamed of living independently in the land that existed merely in their prayers and dreams.  To them the dark days of living under foreign rule, more often than not littered with anti-Semitic attacks, crusades and pogroms, was just a part of their everyday existence.  They too wondered if the exile would ever end; if there was light at the end of this dark historical tunnel.  In exile the eschatological visions of the future played a major part in Jewish life.  The belief that God would redeem them from their Galut existence was often what kept them going.  The belief in a better tomorrow, in a redeemed world, is the cornerstone of the Jewish vision, but equally, perhaps the most problematic.  There are many who try to predict when Mashiach will arrive, when the world will return to a time of peace and unity. There are stories of great sages who kept a case packed under their beds, in case they would need to leave to Jerusalem in haste, for the Mashiach has come.  Is this mindset naive or child like? Surely we should focus on the here and now rather than on some dream like vision of a messianic future?  On the one hand it is this ‘hope’ that keeps us Jews going.  It is the vision of a brighter tomorrow that does not allow us to give up and bury our heads in the sand. Equally it is the ‘not knowing’, the uncertainty of the future that ensures we do not become content and self assured, it pushes us to fight for a better tomorrow and also leaves us with a certain uneasiness, a nagging feeling that our reality is not how we want it to be.  That gap between the world that is and the world that ought to be, between the certainty that there will be a time of redemption but the uncertainty of when and what, is the life force of the Jewish people.  It is central to the prayers of the pious and the action of the liberals, the Torah study and halachic practise of the religious and the justice fighters of the irreligious.

If we think about it most Hollywood films and children’s stories end with the ‘happily ever after’ scenario.  The ‘bad, evil’ person or force gets annihilated by the ‘good’ one.  The one who has been dealt an unjust fate has it turned around and no one suffers any longer.  By presenting this scenario we set our children up for failure.  We present a world where in the end the good will always trump the bad, justice will be triumphant.  Reflecting on this we can ask whether perhaps religion does the very same thing.  Doesn’t our Messianic vision of reality also play out like a Hollywood story?  By praying and believing in the eschatological reality of tomorrow, do we not also camp at the door of unreal expectations?  Do we not set ourselves up for despair when our dreams don’t become a reality, when we witness so much pain and suffering, injustice and hopelessness?  When we realise that no miraculous redemption is coming and no human effort can ever allay all the misery in the world?  This being the case is there a place for such a vision? Are we simply fooling ourselves? Or is it this ideal reality the very life force of humanity and in particular the Jewish people.  The ‘not knowing’ uncertain part of our existence both on an individual and national level is perhaps the hardest part of life.  But it is the also the very essence of living as a mortal, a human – limited in our vision, but unlimited in our dreams.  It is the not knowing part of the knowing that is the most frustrating but also the most redeeming element of humanity.  The present and the future, the revealed and the hidden, the nightmare and the fairytale, all entangled and interwoven in that mysterious phenomenon we call life. 

Yaakov’s monologue to Yosef: Setting out two realities

In the opening paragraph of our Parsha we have a strange monologue by Yaakov.  In it he relays three pieces of information to Yosef.

First he assures Yosef, or possibly himself, that God has promised him on his way to Egypt that his progeny will still be recipients of the land.

Secondly he makes mention of Menashe and Ephraim being born without his knowledge, but still being part of the inheritance and the future.

Thirdly and perhaps most strangely, he recalls the death of his beloved Rachel saying:

‘But as for me, when I came from Paadan, Rachel died on me in the land of Cannan on the road, while there was still a stretch of land to go till Ephrata, and I buried her there on the road to Ephrata, that was bet lechem’. (Bereshit 48:7)

It is puzzling why Yaakov chooses in this speech at this moment to recount the death and burial of Rachel.  Surely Yosef knows all this information already[1]?  I believe that the three elements of Yaakov’s monologue underscore the tension of his life in particular, and of our existence as a nation in general.

He begins with the promise of El Shadai – the certainty that his children will be given a portion and protected, but he ends with the tragedy of his life – Rachel death.  The suffering, pain and despair of losing so soon the one he so dearly loved is expressed in the words ‘מתה עלי רחל  – Rachel died upon me – literally on me – I fell when she fell, a part of me died when she did.  And yet in the middle of his speech he mentions Ephraim and Menashe, his grandchildren that he never knew existed – the hope, the unknown, the promise of a better tomorrow.  The grandchildren that Rachel never got to see or know as she died only ‘on the way’ and not at the ‘end’.

As we already described in Parshat Toldot, Yaakov’s entire life is a learning process and a lesson in integration.  Yaakov is a paradigm of movement from past to future, exile to redemption, part to whole.  He is a tragic figure but also strangely redeeming.  Yaakov describes here in this paragraph exactly the tension we have outlined above.   There are two realities being set out.  Whilst Yaakov mourns his beloved wife, and bewails the death of her eldest son,  unbeknown to him that very same son Yosef, is in another world, another sphere of reality building a future.  Yosef’s sons Menashe and Ephraim are born and are growing creating the unknown tomorrow of the children of Israel today.  Here are two opposing realities at play; death and life, past and future, knowing and not knowing.  For Yaakov Yosef is dead, but in reality he is alive, our reality is not always how we perceive it to be and so to be open to the possibility of a new different actuality is the essence of hope.

A Divine Denial to Reveal the End of Days: The Lesson of Hope in the face of Uncertainty

Two more events occur in the Parsha that speak of the same theme.   The first occurs towards the beginning of the Parsha.  Yaakov comes to the end of his life, knowing his death is near he gathers his sons together and the Torah recounts the following:

1 And Jacob called unto his sons, and said: ‘Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the end of days. 2 Assemble yourselves, and hear, ye sons of Jacob; and hearken unto Israel your father. 3 Reuben, thou art my first-born, my might, and the first-fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. 4 Unstable as water, have not thou the excellency; because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defiledst thou it–he went up to my couch.  (Bereshit 49)

In verse 1 it seems that Yaakov is going to reveal to the brothers what will happen at the ‘end of days’ – some messianic eschatological vision.  However for some reason according to Rashi the shechina leaves him and he is stopped.[2]  God denies him from revealing the ‘end’ – the secret of redemption to his progeny.  There is no happily ever after in this story. Instead he blesses each son. The message is subtle but definite.  The Torah is not interested in revealing to us the end of days, for it is not of supreme importance to us.  What is of absolute consequence, is the way we use our human power and potentials to be a blessing.  How we each bring what is good in ourselves to the betterment of the whole, and how the end of days will come through unity of purpose and preservation of individuality in this world, in the here and the now. Perhaps however the most significant message is that the exile must be experienced in its bitter dark reality, not with surety and a guarantee that redemption will come, but with faith in the face of uncertainty.  With a prayer on ‘the way’, and tears through the process. [3]  Humanity is to have trust in and work towards a better tomorrow without the certainty that it will transpire in one’s own lifetime.

Yosef Request to be bought out of Egypt: Comfort in the face of Uncertainty

The second event is the promise the brothers make to Yosef that his bones will be bought out with the people when they leave Egypt, to be buried in Cannan.  The obvious question is why he could he not be buried at the time of his death in Cannan like Yaakov was? Whist there are commentators who argue it would have been an insult to the Egyptians not to be buried there, I believe there is profound significance to his request.  Implicit in his stipulation is the statement that this exile will come to an end.  It is an answer to Yaakov’s wish to reveal the end.  Yosef achieves what Yaakov was denied.  In his request is a statement that there will be a time when the people will leave, free men, on their journey to the promised land.

Of all our ancestors perhaps Yosef knows the best what it is to live with uncertainty, but yet to triumph against all odds.  He has learnt the art of patience and process, of a limited vision but an enormous dream.  Yosef is the dreamer, but equally he is the achiever.  His dreams of redemption sometimes had to be forgotten, left to sit quietly in the recesses on the mind, waiting to be fulfilled at another time.  But they were always there, lingering quietly hidden.  Yosef doesn’t sit passively waiting for a miracle, instead he builds, fights and achieves whilst remaining true to himself and his values, and most importantly his hopes.   Yosef too is instrumental in the final unification of the brothers.  He could have understandably harboured great resentment, but instead he not only forgives, but ensures that the brothers also forgive themselves.  As they step into exile, he ensures their unity.

Hence the people of Israel must carry Yosef with them on their journey to Cannan.  Whilst they could not be told when exile would end, or even if there would be an end, they knew from Yosef that they must endure their suffering whilst nursing dreams of a better tomorrow, and most importantly they must remain united, utilising their individual strengths and potential, as highlighted through Yaakov’s blessings,  for the betterment of the whole.[4]

Our Parsha relays the key to our survival.  It is no Hollywood film or fairytale that we know will end well.  The ‘end’ is never revealed, the uncertainty remains a central part of the exile experience.  But through Yaakov and Yosef we are given intimations of what will ensure our survival.  Not to clutch on to our dream of a messianic time, looking to live our lives in a mystical metaphysical reality, but instead to make a blessing of our lives in the here and now, to use our strengths and qualities for the betterment of our world and our nation and to build a future – our Menashe and Ephraim – whilst secretly nursing our dream that perhaps one day we will be united, Divinely crowned, in a world where justice and good rather than corruption and self interest really do reign.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] The classic commentaries mention many different reasons.  Rashi cites possible guilt on the part of Yaakov that at the moment that he requests to be buried in Maarat Hamachpeala, he recalls his inability to bury Rachel there.  None of them as far as I can see touch on the question as to why he recounts her death at this juncture in relation to Gods promise and Menashe and Ephraim.

[2] See Rashi 49:1 there he states that Yaakov wanted to reveal the ‘Ketz’ – the end i.e. the ultimate conclusion of the all the exiles but the holy presence departed from him and so in the end he gives the brothers their blessings instead.

[3] A reference to the verses from Jeremiah (31:14) that depicts Rachel crying and praying for her children in Exile, waiting for them to pass her on their way back to Israel.  Rashi quotes this midrash here too.

[4] See Seforno, Or Hachaim and the Malbim 49:29 who all see Yaakov’s blessings as emphasising the potential qualities of each son that should be harboured for the good of the whole.

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